There are some rather weird Christmas traditions from around the world, and Christmas in Cuba is no exception. Austrian children grow up with the idea of Santa Claus, as well as Krampus. Santa Claus is still the benevolent old giver of gifts, but Krampus is a freaky Christmas demon who punishes the naughty children.
At the Christmas meal in Portugal, a place is often set for family members who have died. Single women in the Czech republic will stand with their back to a door and will then lob a shoe over their shoulder. If the shoe hits the ground with the toe pointing at the door, it means they will find a husband in the new year. This only happens at Christmas. Don’t ask us why. In Cuba, Christmas didn’t officially begin again until the Pope arrived (but more on that later). A tropical Christmas is something everyone should experience in their lifetime, and Christmas traditions in Cuba can even involve a trip to the beach.
So what can you expect if you’re lucky enough to spend the festive season in Cuba?
The (Almost) 30 Year Christmas Gap
Christmas was once a regular holiday in Cuba, as it is in many countries in the world. Like many states when a socialist or communist government comes to power, Cuba officially embraced atheism after the revolution. Fidel Castro saw Christmas as unnecessary due to its Christian origins, and as such, Christmas was removed from the official list of holidays in 1969.
It was still celebrated, but not in a major way.
Christmas trees and decorations disappeared from public places and it stayed that way for almost three decades. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to ever visit the island nation, and so Christmas in Cuba was reinstated in his honor, just ahead of his 1998 visit. It was once again celebrated in public, and was officially made a holiday again. Christmas is perhaps more subdued than in other places, and there are less decorations than you might expect, but Christmas had once again returned to the island. It’s perhaps the perfect place to celebrate Christmas if you feel that the occasion has become overly commercialised.
This is certainly not the case in Cuba.
It’s a time to spend time with your family, to perhaps spend time in church, but not to spend a lot of money.
Christmas in Cuba: It Starts With a Parade (Naturally)
There are Christmas parades throughout Latin America, but one of the most lively is (rather unsurprisingly) in Cuba. Go to the town of Remedios if you want to see a real Christmas parade (known as las parrandas). The story goes that the town’s priest became concerned that residents would rather sleep than go to Christmas midnight mass, so he enlisted the town’s children to make as much noise as possible on the evening of December 24th. So the town’s residents were essentially harassed into attending midnight mass, and one of the most beloved Christmas traditions in Cuba was born.
The Parrandas de Remedios boasts a fierce inter-neighbourhood rivalry, with each district dressing up in their own distinctive style and competing to see how loud and festive they can be. If you happen to be in Remedios on December 24th, going to bed early is probably out of the question. After the parade, midnight mass is usually attended and is becoming a traditional part of Christmas in Cuba. Restrictions on religion have been significantly relaxed in recent years, and church attendance is rising accordingly, although many Cubans will only attend on key dates such as Christmas and Easter (and Good Friday only became a public holiday again after Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2012).
While Christmas in Cuba bears a resemblance to the festivities in the US and Europe, the similarities don’t extend to the dining room table. Food rationing is still a thing in Cuba, and so many families will begin to collect food for Christmas weeks in advance. The traditional turkey doesn’t usually make an appearance (although it can be offered in hotels to tourists who want a Christmas that reminds them of home).
If a family can afford it, Christmas in Cuba will feature an entire roasted pig on a spit, often marinated with garlic and citrus juices. It’s lip-smackingly good, and you will want to export this tradition back to your own country. Of course, it might not be practical to roast a pig on a spit in the dead of winter if you happen to live in a snowy country.
But while a Cuban Christmas takes place in winter, a Cuban winter isn’t exactly cold.
Christmas on the Beach?
Typical December temperatures in Cuba are generally around 27°C (80°F), so you could easily spend Christmas on the beach if you were so inclined. Remember that you should wait a while after eating before taking a dip, particularly if you ate a lot of that delicious pig!
Take it easy after Christmas. Cubans sure love to party, and New Year’s Eve is just around the corner…