Many of Cuba’s national holidays celebrate Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and other historical events that fit the government’s narrative of Cuban triumph over colonial overlords. These celebrations are typically marked with military parades and demonstrations, and speeches from important government figures.
There are many other festivals that are not official federal holidays, but time-honored cultural celebrations. You will not see as many holidays and festivals with religious roots in Cuba as you tend to in other Latin American countries, because the government's relationship with religion (although improving) is strained. If you get the chance to attend a Cuban festival, don’t miss it—you’ll hear world-famous Cuban rhythms, and see inimitable Cuban dancers in action.
On January 1, 1959, Fulgencio Batista’s government crumbled. Castro’s supporters threw raucous celebrations in the streets, which set the tone for all January 1 celebrations thereafter. Many Cubans welcomed Castro’s takeover, having lived through many years of U.S.-supported dictatorships.
The cities of Havana and Santiago de Cuba put on especially noisy shows for Triumph Day. Visitors should take advantage of the many free concerts held on January 1. Celebrations carry on through January 2.
January 1 is also a Niño de Atocha’s Day. This day is devoted to the Christ child and Elegua, the foremost deity in Santería.
José Martí was a Cuban poet and an intellectual during the late 19th century, and is considered the father of Cuban revolution. He was an outspoken advocate for Cuban independence from Spain. The celebration of Martí’s birthday dates back to 1909, when Cuba’s old Liberal Party established the holiday. He is Cuba’s unofficial national poet.
This is a military holiday in Cuba. The Cuban Communist Youth Organization helps orchestrate the celebrations. You can read poems from Martí’s work Versos Sencillos, or “Simple Verses,” to prepare for the holiday.
In February you can attend Cuba’s cigar festival in Havana. This is the perfect way to sample a wide variety of cigars, and choose which one you’d like to take home as an enviable souvenir.
Cuba celebrates Carnaval in April, right along with the rest of Latin America, even though Easter is not widely celebrated. Good Friday was declared an official holiday in 2012, after a papal visit from Pope Benedict. It had been abolished since the 1960s. Good Friday commemorates Jesus’s crucifixion, and takes place the Friday before Easter Sunday.
April also has a packed calendar of Cuba’s most popular arts festivals.
• Cine Pobre, the largest Cuban film festival, takes place in the small coastal town of Gibara. This festival showcases the very best of Cuba’s low-budget movies in outdoor screenings.
• International Urban Dance Festival takes place every year in Havana. This is one of Cuba’s most talked-about festivals. It celebrates many styles of dance, most of which originated in Cuba or the Caribbean.
• Bienal de la Havana celebrates Cuban artists and artistic heritage. Galleries in Havana focus on the art from Cuba, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. This festival takes place every two years.
May 1 is the traditional socialist worker’s holiday. In Havana, Cubans gather at the Plaza de la Revolución to hear patriotic speeches. Throughout the country you can see military parades and other demonstrations of Cuban patriotism.
Unlike Carnaval in other parts of Latin America, this holiday does not correspond with Easter. It is based on an old Afro-Cuban Holiday that commemorates St. James and his corresponding Yoruba deity. It was called Las Mamarrachos until the turn of the century, when the city wanted to make the holiday seem less African for political reasons. You’ll see colorful floats and amazing dancers, and hear the rousing Afro-Cuban drum music that has made Santiago de Cuba a standout in the world of Cuban music.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro stormed the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. These barracks were the main garrison for Batista’s army. The attack was not a success, and Batista’s army quickly overpowered Castro’s band of approximately 150 rebels.
Castro fled the scene and went into hiding, emerging only after Batista had guaranteed his safety. As a result of the attack he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. In spite of the failure of the attack, this day is considered the first major step in Castro’s revolution.
Virgen de Cobre is the patron saint of Cuba. Although Cuba is not very Catholic compared to the rest of Latin America, Virgen de Cobre has a special place in the hearts of many Cubans. Her shrine is located at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. According to Cuban lore, the Spanish tried to return her statue to Spain, but it fell overboard and got stuck in a reef near a Cuban beach, thus proving her devotion to Cuba.
Virgen de Cobre is usually depicted as having mixed heritage, one reason she is thought to be an appropriate representative of all of Cuba, since most Cubans have both African and mestizo heritage. In Santería the Virgen de Cobre is conflated with Ochún, the Nigerian goddess of femininity and rivers.
It’s customary to leave gifts at her shrine. Ernest Hemingway donated his Nobel Prize in literature to her in 1954.
These heroes of Castro’s revolution are celebrated with military parades and ceremonies. While they are important to the Cuban state, they are not necessarily accompanied by huge amounts of revelry.
October 8 – Anniversary of Che Guevara’s death
On October 8, 1967, Bolivian soldiers who were working in cahoots with the CIA assassinated Che Guevara. He is considered one of the heroes of Castro’s revolution, and has taken on a mythological status in the years since his death.
October 10 - Anniversary of the begening of the Independence War
On October 10 1868, at "La Demajagua" estate, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes release all its slaves and declared the begening of the Independence War against Spain.
October 28 – Memorial Day of Camilio Cienfuegos
On October 28 1959, Camilio Cienfuegos died under mysterious circumstances. As an important figure in Castro’s army, it is assumed that the CIA may have had something to do with his death.
December is the month of the famous Havana Jazz Festival. Cuban musicians have a distinctive take on this American musical tradition, and all month long local clubs devote themselves to putting on jazz performances.
December 2 – Armed Forces Day
This day marks the anniversary of the Granma landing on the beach of Las Coloradas. Castro picked this beach to echo the route of another important historical figure – when poet José Martí returned from exile to Cuba he had arrived at Las Coloradas beach as well. José Martí became Castro’s mascot for the Cuban revolution.
December 7 – Memorial Day for Antonio Maceo
Antonio Maceo served as a general during Cuba’s multiple rebellions against Spain in the 19th century. This holiday serves as a reminder of Cuba’s long fight against Spanish oppression.
December 25 – Christmas
From 1969 to 1998, Christmas was not an official holiday in Cuba. Castro declared his government atheist in the 1960s, and abolished all religious holidays. Castro has stated that he initially banned Christmas because he needed workers to devote themselves to the sugar harvest instead of taking a holiday.
Castro reinstated Christmas during a 1998 papal visit from Pope John Paul II, although it is still not celebrated in public with any particular fervor. Cuba does not have religious freedom, and many religious celebrations are oppressed. Cubans put up decorations more for tourists than they do for their own enjoyment. Of course, churches will hold small celebrations, but these celebrations are quite muted compared to the blitz of presents and Christmas trees you’re used to at home.
December 31 – New Year’s Eve / Eve of the revolution
This is much more of a raucous celebration than Christmas – in fact, this is one of the most raucous holidays in Cuba. The rum will flow long into the night, and the streets fill with revelers.
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