Christmas trees and other yule trappings have reappeared in homes and social clubs after a long absence, the latest sign of a softening in the attitude of the officially atheist government toward the Roman Catholic church.

"I considered it a tradition that couldn't be erased," said Enrique Lopez Oliva, who teaches religion at the University of Havana and also edits a newsletter on church issues.At a social club, a pine tree adorned with Christmas lights sits a few feet from the statue of one of the martyrs of the Cuban Revolution. But the great majority of the Christmas trees are found in private homes and occupy an out-of-the-way place invisible to passers-by.

This Pennsylvania-sized nation of 10 million people, the least religious of any in Latin America, branded yuletide celebrations as a "bourgeois prejudice" after the 1959 Communist takeover, Lopez said.

One reason: The government felt the manpower needed for the winter sugar harvest should not be diverted by holiday celebrations.

Last year, several Cubans displayed a Christmas tree, and the old tradition picked up considerable momentum this year.

Putting up a Christmas tree can be a chore since none is sold commercially and often they must be dug up from wooded areas, no small task in a country with few private cars.

In addition, ornaments generally are available only if they were stashed away - and not discarded - when the government began discouraging Christmas observances.

Several Cubans said Christmas always had been considered more of an occasion for family gatherings and gift-giving than a religious festival.

Still, even the limited yuletide observation is a far cry from a few years ago, when the only acknowledgement of the holiday were the signs in stores reserved for foreigners: "December is gift-buying month."