Aruba’s Traditions Reward Curious Visitors

It may be one of the world’s most up-to-the-minute holiday destinations but the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba also boasts some centuries-old traditions.
 
Oct. 23, 2014 - PRLog -- Away from the wi-fi’d rooms of the major resorts, where guests can be checked in on a tablet rather than at reception, islanders have a rich and diverse culture. And if visitors care to forsake the beach and Aruba’s enticing watersports, they will find locals delighted to share their customs with curious tourists.

One of the most popular is approaching with Christmas. Sinterklaas is a Dutch figure representing Saint Nicholas, a 3rd Century bishop who became the patron saint of children and had a penchant for giving gifts.

In true Dutch tradition, Arubans welcome Sinterklaas, his white horse and a handful of helpers – called Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) – as they sail into Aruba’s main harbour (St Nicholas was also patron saint of sailors). A parade follows, with Sinterklaas and helpers throwing treats to children. They also appear at various events across the island in the run up to Christmas Day.

For Christmas itself, Aruban treats include ayacas, a tasty meat roll, with the filling wrapped in a cornmeal-based dough and cooked in banana leaves. Ayacas originated in Venezuela, as did gaita music, also adopted by Arubans and turned into their own holiday tradition. Gaita bands are typically comprised of female singers accompanied by musicians using traditional instruments and who process conga-style from October to December in places like shopping malls.

There’s a musical note too to a traditional New Year in Aruba. Islanders celebrate Dande to spread good wishes for the New Year. Meaning ‘to revel’ or ‘to carouse’ in the local Papiamento language, dande involves groups of five or six travelling to homes of friends and family wishing them forthcoming happiness and success through song.

New Year’s Eve is spectacular on Aruba. A nationwide firework display will dazzle any visitor fortunate enough to ring in 2015 on the island. Off the variety of fireworks used, the pagara has special significance. This is a long string of Chinese firecrackers ending in several larger ones to prove a dramatic finale. They are set off by homeowners and local businesses on the days leading up to December 31to ward off evil spirits for the coming year.

The first traditional date in the diary for the New Year is January 25 – Betico Croes Day. This commemorates the birthday of the ‘Liberator of Aruba’, the island’s political leader who in 1986 led it to become an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Arubans gather in capital Oranjestad for a day-long programme, which includes a culinary festival and a cultural show. Betico Day is also marked by an island-wide Harley-Davidson motor-cycle tour, welcoming international riders, and two marathons held in Betico’s home town of Santa Cruz.

Biggest of all traditions, of course, is carnival, held from January to March. Carnival parades are held in Oranjestad and second city San Nicolas, each consisting of between 15 and 20 carnival groups, each with its own theme, reflected in costumes and their float. Carnival is also noted for its ‘jump-ups’ – street parties – to which everyone is welcome.

Summer sees a curious and unique date. Dera Gai (St John’s Day) is celebrated on June 24, as it has for more than 100 years, with traditional song and dance. But the holiday is rife with both pagan and Christian influences, reflecting its origins with Arawak indian natives and Spanish missionaries.

Traditionally, the Dera Gai celebration was centred on an unusual ritual. A hole was dug in the ground and a live rooster buried up to its neck. Blindfolded revellers would then be given three attempts at decapitating the bird with a long pole, the winner being rewarded with prizes.

Happily, a more humane approach is taken today. For example, at the Dera Gai celebration in the town of Santa Cruz – one of the biggest on the island – revellers are blindfolded and tasked with locating a flag staked into the ground, while swaying their hips to the rhythms of a band. Meanwhile, folk dance groups re-enact the original ceremony using a dummy rooster.

Years ago bonfires were built on the eve of St John’s Day to communicate the arrival of the holiday to neighbours. Traditionally, clippings from the previous year’s harvest would be burnt in preparation for the coming growing seasons, Now, fires are still lit island-wide as a reminder of this unique local festival.

For more information about Aruba, go to www.aruba.com

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Joanna Walding
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Tags:Festive, Celebrations, Caribbean, Beach, Christmas
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