How do Cubans celebrate Christmas?
There’s a reason why here at Cubania we talk about the Cuban way, and Christmas is no exception! Banned from 1969 until 1998, Christmas celebrations weren’t really a thing while Fidel was around. It wasn’t until the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 that Cubans were able to celebrate Christmas again.
So what’s Christmas like in Cuba?
If you’d rather stay away from the classic Western-style consumerist frenzy and constant, gift buying and carol singing, you’ll love Cuban Christmas! Although Christmas can feel pared down compared to how other countries celebrate the festivities, a lot of travellers actually find Cuban Christmas a refreshing experience!
Nochebuena (Christmas Eve, 24th December)
Nochebuena (= the good night) is the main celebratory date in the festive calendar. For Cubans, Nochebuena is a time to get together with your family at home, cook and enjoy an evening meal. The traditional Nochebuena meal includes roast leg of pork, congrí rice (rice cooked with black beans ) yucca with garlic dressing, fried plantains and salad, but most people cook with whatever they have!
Those with money tend to follow US traditions, so they cook a turkey, put lights on their house and even decorate a Christmas tree – usually fake and boasting very kitsch vibes! Very few go to church and attend a festive mass. The next day, 25th December is a national holiday, and it’s used as a day of rest. Some paladars, restaurants and nightclubs do special Christmas events but the majority of the country can’t afford to attend these.
If you are planning to spend Christmas in Cuba, why not experience local life in one of the smaller iconic towns of Trinidad or Viñales where the casa particular where you’ll stay will make a special effort so you’ll have a Christmas to remember!
However, just because Christmas isn’t celebrated with bells and whistles like in many other countries, it doesn’t make the Cuban Christmas any less special – and if you’ve heard of the epic Parrandas you know what we’re talking about!
If Cuban Christmas’ are famous for something, it’s the Parrandas De Remedios, celebrated during Nochebuena in the town of Remedios (Villa Clara province). Far from curated firework displays, the Parrandas are more of a noisy, free-for-all firework street party! In a nutshell, the town divides itself into 8 sections and get into firework “battles” between them. Originated in 1820 by a local priest who, tired of seeing locals choose a lie in over the festive mass, gathered a bunch of children in the lead-up to Nochebuena to make as much loud noise as possible in the early hours of the morning, hoping to wake up locals to attend local mass (where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?). This celebration of noise and local folk getting together is now one of the most popular national holidays in Cuba.
Nochevieja (NYE, 31st December)
When it comes to saying goodbye to the year, Cubans celebrate Nochevieja (= the old night or NYE) similarly to Nochebuena. Families enjoy the day and a meal together. In most places, locals throw a bucket of water onto the streets after midnight, as a symbolic gesture to throw away the old year and welcome in the new! Others will walk around the block carrying a suitcase to inspire travel and some even make an effigy (a ragdoll to symbolize the old year ) and burn it.
If you travel to Havana for Nochevieja you might not find much public celebration though, although some clubs and restaurants do have special offers for NYE. You should also be able to watch some fireworks to welcome the New Year from El Morro castle, above Old Havana.
Año nuevo (New Year’s Day, 1st January)
The 1st of January is not only a celebration of the start of the New Year but also a Revolutionary holiday – commemorating what Cubans call “El Triunfo de la Revolucion” – a celebration of the anniversary of the victory of the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 which established the present government in Cuba. This January 1st 2023, will be the 64th anniversary. Most Cubans spend the 1st of January sleeping off their hangovers from the night before and some of those who live close to the sea, go to the beach and pay their respects to Yemayá, the goddess of the seven seas and Mother of All.