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Why celebrate the holidays in just one way? Especially if you live in Aruba

On November 1st, Aruba's residents unwrap the last of their Halloween candy and enthusiastically announce the arrival of Christmas on social media.

They do this with a most carefully selected meme and paired with unbridled enthusias. And even weeks in advance, a swift change of merchandise in the alleys of the local retail stores as well as their background music will remind everybody that most wonderful time of the year is fast approaching. Slowly but surely, the home improvement stores become more crowded, with patrons eager to paint their house just before the end of year intermediate showers get in the way.

Most radio stations on the island will launch their Holiday programming by mid October starting to broadcast some of the classic and most adored tunes, together with a wave of hot of-the-recording-studio carols and gaitas sung by some of the Aruban talent from all ages. Gaitas are a more upbeat and danceable rhythm hailing from the Maracaibo region of neighboring Venezuela.

Never mind that the official opening of the island’s biggest party, the Carnival, is traditionally marked on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 am and 11 minutes. Sure enough, the people of Aruba won’t ignore the occasion and happily will take a brief recess to shake their hips to the sounds soca music, feathers in hand, before quickly returning to the jingle bells.

As to the question of how exactly Arubans celebrate the end of the year season, it is a bit richer than just Christmas and New Year. As many visitors have come to know, for centuries the island has been a melting pot of cultures, brewing into a unique setting in which European, Afro Caribbean and also modern American customs live collectively in harmony. Can’t really blame us for looking towards every plausible reason to party, right?

For purposes of order, let us embark together on a chronological journey through the most popular festivities celebrated today in Aruba.

The influence of the single biggest visitor group to the island, the Americans, is felt in many aspects; from the language to the food. It is safe to say that during the last five years or so, Thanksgiving has become an ever prominent celebration on the island. Even though it is not an official holiday, people will observe the day by going out dinner, having Friendsgiving gatherings at somebody’s home or just being extra grateful. Black Friday is a whole other topic; maybe for next time.

Next is Sinterklaas. A custom brought to the island by the Dutch settlers in which kids take center stage; just like several others by and around the end of the year. The tale says that this priest arrives on a boat from Spain towards the end of November, to check on all the little boy’s and girl’s behavior during the year.

Those who were obedient receive gifts on December 5th, after they offered grass and carrots served in one of their own shoes, for Sinterklaas’ white horse to eat. But those who were, let’s say, naughty, receive no gift and are removed by one of Sinterklaas’ helpers, the Petes, put in a sack and taken to Spain.

Fear not. Over the years, the tradition has been duly reformed to be more politically correct and less traumatizing for the little ones.

Moving on, we have Dia de las Velitas, a tradition that also has gained force lately thanks to the large Colombian community on the island. It is seen as the unofficial start of the holiday season, a night in which several small candles are lit while family and friends gather around food and music to relish in each other’s company. Celebrated on December 7th, the eve of the date in which the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is remembered.

During these weeks in November and December, those on the island will frequently delight their palates with the seasons’ traditional food offerings. To mention a few, we have from the Netherlands the oliebollen which is a deep fried batter ball with or without raisins, garnished with powdered sugar.

A popular dish is the ayaca; an import from Venezuela, known in Colombia as tamal. Consider this, the equivalent of the home cooked turkey. Families and friends come together to prepare and assemble these meat and veggies pockets. It is the stuff childhood memories are made of; with recipes handed down from one generation onto the next.

A bit of slow cooked stew is placed on a bed of seasoned dough. Originally an olive, a caper and a raisin are placed too before wrapping it in banana leaves and tied to hold together while it cooks in boiling water. Arubans added pickled pearl onions, a cashew and, of course, some hot sauce to the stuffing. Nowadays, you can find a whole myriad of variations to satisfy everybody’s dietary preferences.

Another delicious dish that never fails to be present on the table at Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) dinner of Christmas Day feast is the Pan de Jamon. Also of Venezuelan origin, it is exactly what it translates to and then more. The dough is lined with ham trimmings, raisins and olives, rolled up into a loaf that only then is put in the oven to bake.

And just as is the case with the ayaca, everybody on the island knows somebody that makes the ‘perfect’ pan de jamon. Same applies for cakes, snacks, punch, etc.

But times flies and soon enough the houses are all lit, tree is up, everybody is in their best attire to celebrate. Churches around the island will celebrate midnight mass, followed by several other services on Christmas day, both in Papiamento and English. Santa Claus, as usual will have found another way to get in the Aruban houses without a chimney and leave presents behind. But he doesn’t complaint since there is no snow to slip on.

If you paid attention, this would be the second gift in December for kids. But it does not end there. Families of Latin descend can opt to have a gift from Santa, as well as the Jesus Child (Niño Jesus) and then have another gift prepared for Three King’s Day on January 6th. It certainly is good to grow up in multicultural Aruba.

And so we reach the final week of the month in which new customs come forward thanks to Aruba’s diversity. For New Year’s children and children at heart will have just about six days in which they are allowed to burn as much fireworks as their wallets permit. Temporary fireworks outlet will appear alongside major roads.

One very visible firework in particular is the Pagara. It is believed by Asian cultures to chase away the bad luck of the year that is ending, so you can start a prosperous new one. You will see local businesses burning these in front of their building on the last day of work for the year, as well as in almost every house when the clock hits 12:00 on New Years. Simultaneously with the pagara, the Aruban sky will illuminate from San Nicolas to Noord in an array of firework displays that can go on for more than half hour.

Boxing day and New Years Day is when our cultural backgrounds fade away and we are united by the need to rest and relax. Some will head for the beach, while other opt for their bed.

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