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Elian's American Christmas

Santa Claus has already paid a visit to Elian Gonzalez, and if the six-year-old Cuban boy is still in the United States next month, he'll get presents from the Three Wise Men too.

The boy has already received so many toys from well-wishers - including a city official dressed as Santa Claus - his relatives plan to give many away.

But the family says the real gift came from U.S. immigration officials, who put off making any decisions in the case through the weekend, allowing Elian to spend Christmas in Miami.

The boy was rescued by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day, after clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic for two days. His mother and stepfather drowned on the voyage to Florida. Back in Cuba, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, says he wants Elian back.

The boy was placed with relatives in Miami, who are fighting to keep him in the United States. If he stays, they promise Christmas will be a part of his new life. The holiday is not widely celebrated in Cuba.

"It's not a celebration like we celebrate here, where we have a Christmas tree; they just get one toy on their bed," said his cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez. "They don't have Christmas ... I feel it will be his first."

Christmas was officially observed on the communist island last year for the first time since 1969, when the government said the celebration interfered with the sugar harvest.

Cuban President Fidel Castro declared Dec. 25, 1997, an official holiday in honor of Pope John Paul II's visit the following month. In 1998, Christmas was declared an official government holiday.

In the early 1990s, Cuba's government declared it was no longer officially atheist and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party.

Thursday, Elian's family prepared for 'Noche Buena', or Christmas Eve dinner, which Hispanics traditionally celebrate instead of Christmas Day.

The Cuban Noche Buena meal consists of a whole pig, often roasted at home in a backyard pit, and later doused with mojito, a garlicky marinade. Yucca, rice and black beans are also served. For dessert, flan, rice pudding or traditional desserts from Spain like Turron, a sweet nougat, or marzipan, a sweet bread.

Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, said because the boy has received so many gifts already, he will have only one present under the tree - a Nintendo game system.

He may get more gifts on Jan. 6, which Hispanics celebrate as the day the Three Kings went to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child.

After Christmas, INS will resume its work to determine who is legally fit to speak for the boy - a preliminary step in the process of determining custody. The custody question is expected to be decided in the courts.

"We're hoping a good decision is made and that his mother isn't forgotten," said Ms. Gonzalez. "She brought him to this country, and that should be respected. Whope also that my cousin is allowed to come here."

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