This time last year I was preparing for a very untraditional Christmas break.
When I booked my flight to Cuba in July I had – naively, I’ll admit – presumed that as a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Christmas would be something quite special.
How wrong I was.
It seems obvious now. In fact it seemed obvious the moment I’d realised that Christmas really isn’t celebrated in Cuba at all. But it couldn’t have been clearer than when I actually arrived.
Cuba is a communist-run country. For decades its government has rejected capitalism and commercialisation, of which Christmas is the most ostentatious product.
Except in tourist resorts like Varadero or Cayo Coco, Christmas involves no exchanging of gifts, no gala dinners, no Christmas adverts and jingles being forced down your throat or eardrums, no turkey, paper hats or crackers, and definitely no Santa.
Instead, Christmas is passed like any other time of year. It’s business as usual. And in December business is booming.
For the rest of the western world this is holiday time; a chance to travel further afield and explore somewhere new. Thousands of tourists – Christmas humbugs or otherwise – choose to visit Cuba, where political history manifests itself on almost every street corner, through some form of artistic propaganda.
Christmas in Cuba under the Castro Regime
Christmas in Cuba was actually banned by the Castro regime in 1969, as Fidel believed it interfered with the production of sugar cane – Cuba’s biggest export. This ban was finally lifted in 1998, following the visit of Pope John Paul II who encouraged Fidel to soften his stance. Since then Cuban families have been allowed to celebrate Christmas at home but this is still rare to see. 29 years without Christmas is a long time; enough time for an entire generation to grow up not knowing or valuing the tradition. So naturally, when it is reinstated, nobody really cares anymore.
On Christmas Day, Kids go to school and shops, restaurants and markets stay open for regular business. You might catch the occasional glimpse of Christmas as we know it, through the open doors of a grand hotel or in a casa with American ties, but beyond that there are no obvious signs.
I’m not a big Christmas person. I value the quality time I get from it but generally I despise the superficial beast it has become and the stress and pressure it causes people. So it wasn’t like I was going to miss it very much. Sure, I’d miss my family at a time of year I was used to being with them, but Christmas itself? Nah.
So spending Christmas time in a Christmas-less country actually seemed quite appealing.
Christmas Day in Cuba: What to do
For Christmas Day itself we were in Trinidad. We’d arrived that morning by bus from Playa Giron, a coastal town made famous by its involvement in the battle of The Bay of Pigs. We’d spent Christmas Eve snorkeling in Cueva de los Peces (the fish cave) and Punta Perdiz (the lost point). Not exactly what you’d call a traditional Christmas activity but we were more than happy to partake.
Until that point in our trip we had pre-arranged casas particulares through our hosts in each place we stayed (your host will always offer to arrange accommodation on your behalf no matter where you’re going – they want to get their amigos some business). When we arrived there would always be plenty of better-looking casas advertising rooms. So we decided not to pre-book for Christmas day in Trinidad.
This was very naive.
We arrived in Trinidad to find that every casa was full. Everywhere else we’d been bombarded by Cubans at bus stations desperately trying to sell us a room. Not on Christmas Day in Trinidad. Trust me, if you plan on staying in Trinidad for Christmas Day, let your casa host arrange your accommodation for you.
Cuban boy to the rescue!
We spent around 4 hours traipsing the streets of Trinidad looking for a triple room. If we hadn’t been able to speak Spanish we might never have found something. We were extremely fortunate to meet a Cuban lad of about 17, who made about 10 calls to different casa owners who in turn called others to find us a room. It was quite the insight into how connected Cuban communities are. They look after each other but they look after travellers too. They could see we were desperate and had no reason to go out of their way for us. But they did. And they saved our Christmas!
Where to eat in Trinidad
Later that day we treated ourselves to a slap-up dinner at a restaurant nearby the Plaza Mayor called Giroud (403, Calle Rosario). The food was so delicious and budget-friendly we must have eaten their at least 3 more times. There were no Christmas decorations to be seen but that didn’t stop me from producing my own little piece of Christmas – a solid block of fruity Christmas cake, which weighed about 1kg. I’d brought it from home to share with whoever I was with on Christmas day itself. Good will and all that.
I dug it out from the depths of my backpack it had already congealed into a greasy, misshapen cake ball. “Merry Christmas” I dryly proclaimed to my travel companions, who were grateful it has to be said. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to unwrap it and hide some coins inside before serving it up (anyone else do this or is this just a family tradition?) but it went down well.
That night we danced salsa till we dropped at the outdoor Casa de La Música by the steps leading from Plaza Mayor. The atmosphere was electric. We’d definitely picked the right place to celebrate Christmas in Cuba.
Christmas Eve in Cuba
But let’s rewind a second. Christmas Eve, referred to as Nochebuena in Spanish, is actually an important event for Cuban families. The day marks one of the biggest family meals of the year. Roast pig, fried plantains and rice comprise the main course, while rice pudding (they love their rice) and rum cake is served for dessert.
Nochebuena also marks the night of one of Cuba’s greatest fiestas, in the unlikely small and lesser-known town of Remedios.
Remedios is about 45km from Santa Clara and 5km from the gateway to the tourist-purposed resorts of Cayos Brujas and Santa María. There really isn’t much to do in Remedios the rest of the year, as I discovered when I visited in the first week of January. But on Christmas Eve you can bet your life there is nowhere busier and more berserk in Cuba.
The December 24 celebration, called Las Parrandas, is in no way Christmas-related. Nor was it created as an alternative to Christmas. It just happens to be on Christmas Eve and consequently lots of backpackers flock there for a Christmas party they’ll never forget.
The population of Remedios is about 46,000 and from what my host told me nobody would ever think of missing Las Parrandas. In a town so small and otherwise uninteresting to tourists – who are largely depended on to bring in the money – the event has become monumental. The fireworks don’t get going until midnight, and from therein it’s a non-stop party until the next morning. Given how compact the town is I doubt you’d get any sleep if you tried. There’s a funfair too, which was all being packed away when I was there 2 weeks later.
I’d toyed with the idea of going for the festival but decided not to for 2 reasons: I didn’t want to pre-book overpriced accommodation using a website I didn’t trust, and I had to stick with my gang who voted to spend Christmas in Trinidad, in order to keep costs down. But snorkelling in Playa Giron and later hearing one of the most moving stories I’ve ever heard was a memorable enough Christmas Eve for me.
If you want to read up more on Remedios and Las Parrandas I suggest this article (lahabana.com).
So if you’re going to spend Christmas in Cuba this year then leave your preconceptions of Christmas at the airport. You won’t be needing them.
Heading to Cuba this Christmas? If you’ve any more questions I’ll do my best to answer them if you’d like to ask in the comments section below. Was this article helpful? Share! 🙂