An alternative Christmas in Cuba

Communism and the church have never seen eye to eye. In fact, for many years, Cuba’s churches were closed, its public holidays abolished; Christmas was cancelled. “They didn’t burn or trash the churches or anything, they just closed them,” says Clarita Derwent, manager of our Cuban travel specialists Cuban Adventures. But for nearly 30 years, celebrations were shelved as the economic importance of the sugarcane harvest took centre stage.
Christmas finally came out of the shadows in 1998, following the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. “He came and met with Fidel, and gave a mass in Havana's Revolution Square,” says Clarita. In return, the Pope requested that Christmas Day be reinstated as a public holiday and, under some pressure, Fidel agreed. In the years that followed, Christmas celebrations slowly grew. However Clarita explains that, initially, the idea behind a Cuban Christmas tour came about because there wasn’t anything Christmassy going on at all. “I thought, lets create a Christmas tour for the group visiting at that time so that they feel like they’re still experiencing Christmas, and we’ll find all the things that are going on.”
New Year’s Eve has long been a big family holiday in Cuba, but another, little known festival was also becoming a bigger part of Cuba’s festivities: Las Parrandas de Remedios. “It’s such an incredible festival that I thought, we should take people to that!” says Clarita. And, since it wasn’t part of any existing tour, she explains that it sparked the idea of a special Christmas and New Year tour: “Combining New Year’s Eve, the Christmas Eve parades and Christmas Day celebration is just a beautiful way to spend Christmas in the Caribbean.”
Two pope visits later, in 2012 and 2015, and Christmas has become a much bigger event. But if you’re thinking of going, it’s still best experienced with a holiday company that has specialised in offering this unusual tour for years.

Las Parrandas de Remedios

Back in the 1800s, or so the story goes, a priest attempting to attract more parishioners to his poorly attended mass instructed a gaggle of children to bang pots and pans and make enough noise to draw out the crowds. And somehow, between then and now, that little spectacle in the little Cuban town of Remedios has evolved to become what might be the world’s wildest Christmas party.

“It’s an amazing festival that takes place on the 24th,” says Clarita, who describes a town filled with street parades, rhumba and dancing. “They have all these lights and fireworks, absurd fireworks, and massive big floats that are all covered with either fireworks or lights.” It’s so hectic, in fact, that tours offer the option of watching it all from the comfort of a rooftop terrace – but don’t let that stop you joining in the fun down below.

A festive feast

When asked whether Cubans eat traditional Christmas food, Clarita laughs. “Well, let me tell you, for me as an Australian it is, but for you it might not be!” Over the last few generations, Aussies have rebelled against English roasts and hot puddings in favour of a more seasonal, summer-appropriate, seafood feast. “And that’s exactly what you get in Cuba!” says Clarita. “You get lobster, you get prawns, you get maybe a massive fish in the centre of the table, crab... so it’s a lot of seafood.”

Travellers to Cuba might be sceptical, given the country’s reputation for food. But good meals in Cuba aren’t so hard to come by – especially if you stay clear of monotonously bland buffets. Home cooked casa food is always better than the meals on offer in government-owned hotels, while a growing number of paladares (privately owned restaurants) are expanding the possibilities of Cuba’s food scene. And for those who don’t like seafood, Clarita assures that there’s more to Cuban Christmas dinner than fish: “There will still be ham, there will still be a lot of vegetables – although not roasted vegetables – that and a thousand other things. But no turkey!”

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New Year’s Eve

As the resounding boom of cannons sounds across Havana bay, you’ll know the clock’s struck midnight. That’s when the fireworks begin. Cuban families come out in force as the festivities reach full swing; cigars are shared out, pigs are roasted and the rum flows. And from your seat, beneath the stone towers of Old Havana’s impressive cathedral, you’ll have some of the best views in town.

What does this trip entail?

In 11 days, a round-trip bus tour of western Cuba will take in best of the island’s festivities: the Parrandas de Remedios Christmas Eve parade, a home cooked Christmas dinner in Trinidad and the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Havana. Tours typically depart on either the 22nd or 23rd December and are limited to a maximum of 16 travellers.

On New Year’s Eve, the only restaurant in Havana’s Cathedral Plaza lays out every one of its tables for an alfresco feast that fills the square. This banquet is one of many celebrations that take place on what has traditionally been Cuba’s biggest holiday. “For them, New Year is very, very important,” explains Clarita. “You get together with the family, you all stay up late in the evening and then at midnight you get this huge special meal. And that’s their big important family date.”
What will I be doing?
Of course, festive celebrations aren’t the only sights on offer; with almost two weeks of travelling, you’ll have ample time to see the rest of Cuba as well. On your way between the major city sights, you can stop and explore the small villages where the sound of salsa plays long into the night, or admire the limestone ‘pincushion’ hills (mogotes) that dot the Viñales valley. Snorkel in the Bay of Pigs, see the sprawling tobacco fields or go hiking, biking or horseback riding and altogether enjoy a very different Christmas experience.
Where will I be staying?
Accommodation is in twin-share, ensuite bedrooms in Cuban guesthouses, called casas particulares – the original Airbnb. Back in the late 1990s, encouraged by the government, Cubans began renting out rooms in their homes to make a little extra income from tourism. Although many families no longer live in the guest houses, they remain the best place to stay to get a real feel for local life. Tours are split between a handful of closely located casas, so staying is only feasible for travellers in small groups.
Can I bring gifts?
Many visitors to Cuba want to bring things that local Cubans can’t get, but Clarita advises that it isn’t very responsible, as tourists, to create a dependency on gifts from tourists. She does say, however, that those wishing to bring gifts can choose from a list of items recommended by their tour company, including school and medical supplies, which will be distributed on travellers’ behalf. Leaving a small gift for the host family at your casa is encouraged, and your tour guide can help you choose something suitable.

What do I need to pack?
The temperature in Havana is unlikely to drop below 17°C in December or January, with highs in the high 20s very possible. On top of that, there will be plenty of time to relax on the beach or try one of the various activities available, from scuba diving and snorkelling to hiking and horse riding. There may also be a few long journeys on the bus – it takes a full day to get between Cienfuegos and Viñales. So pack for warm weather, pack for comfort, and don’t forget something to keep you occupied on the road.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Cuban Adventures] [All images: Cuban Adventures]
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