Aruba’s Holidays & Traditions
Aruba is a culturally active island where a number of holidays and traditions are celebrated throughout the year. While many of Aruba’s holidays and traditions are influenced by the cultures of other countries, such as Holland, Venezuela, America, and other Caribbean islands, others are by and large homegrown. The following holidays and traditions add depth and excitement to the lives of Arubans and to the vacation experience of island guests who take part in these celebrations.
Bon Bini Festival at Fort Zoutman
Every Tuesday evening of the year, whether rain or shine, the Bon Bini Festival regales island guests with a unique folkloric celebration at Fort Zoutman in downtown Oranjestad. The quaint, open-air courtyard within the fort’s antiquated stone walls provides the perfect setting to enjoy traditional Antillean dance performances, listen to the sweet melody of steel pans, browse a small bazaar of local arts and crafts, and sample plenty of tasty local foods and refreshments.
Caha di Orgel
The caha di orgel (organ box) is a traditional musical instrument typically played during national holidays and the occasional wedding or birthday celebration. Each organ has two or three barrels pegged with metal pins that move strings attached to hammers to create a song when the barrel is cranked. On Aruba, the caha di orgel is endearingly referred to as the tingilingi box for the teeng-ee-leeng-ee sound that it makes.
Carnaval is the event of the year on the Aruban calendar. Beginning after the new year with the Torch Parade and ending at midnight on the eve of Ash Wednesday, Carnaval serves as a last hurrah before the abstinent period of Lent. The Carnaval schedule features a handful of parades characterized by colorful floats, extravagant costumes, and rolling sound trucks that fuel the dancing crowd with roadmarch songs. Jump-ups (street parties), impressive steelpan drum performances, a tumba contest, a calypso and roadmarch contest, and king and queen elections round out the Aruban Carnaval season.
Aubans celebrate New Year’s Day with a special tradition known as Dande. Groups made up of five to six people visit the homes of their families and friends, wishing these loved ones success and happiness in the coming year through song. A drum, tambu, wiri-wiri (very traditional Aruban musical instrument), and raspa produce the festive upbeat rhythm and contagious chorus of Dande songs.
On June 24, Arubans observe Dera Gai, a folkloric festival celebrated on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Dera Gai is rife with both pagan and Catholic symbolism reflecting the influences of the Arawak natives and Spanish missionaries on the Island, respectively. Traditionally, blindfolded revelers, using a long pole, were given three tries to decapitate a rooster buried up to its head in the ground. Today, a more humane approach to the ritual involves trying to locate a flag staked into the ground while being blindfolded. Decked out in bright yellow-and-red costumes, folk groups perform harvest dances, and as in long-begone days, huge bonfires are burned all across the island to herald the arrival of Dera Gai.
Dia Di Betico
This national holiday commemorates the birthday of G. F. “Betico” Croes, the charismatic political activist who engineered Aruba’s secession from the Netherlands Antilles, eventually occurring in 1986. Consequently, Aruba became a separate, autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with the power to establish its own constitution, parliament, police force, currency, national anthem, and flag. On January 25, Arubans gather at Plaza Betico Croes to honor their “Father of the Nation” with a special flag ceremony, a culinary festival, a sale of local goods, and a cultural show featuring Aruban folk and Carnaval dances. An island-wide Harley Davidson bike tour and marathons held in Betico’s hometown, Santa Cruz, also mark the occasion.
Flag & Anthem Day
On March 18, 1948, the Aruban politician Shon A. Eman presented the first formal proposal for the self-determination of the Aruban people to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. In 1976, twenty-eight years later to the day, political leader Betico Croes declared the first Flag & Anthem Day. This patriotic holiday is celebrated with a scout parade, a classic-car parade, sporting events, a folkloric performance at Plaza Betico Croes, and special cultural activities at museums in downtown Oranjestad. Arubans are especially proud of their beautiful anthem, “Aruba Dushi Tera,” a waltz composed by three of Aruba’s celebrated artists: Juan Chabaya “Padu” Lampe, Rufo Wever, and Hubert Booi.
Arubans adopted this Venezuelan Christmas music and turned it into their own holiday tradition. Gaita bands—typically made up of a line of female singers accompanied by musicians playing the furucu, cuarta, bass, piano, tambu, raspa, timbal, and conga—perform from October through December at shopping malls, other island businesses, and private residences.
On the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, local businesses and residences fire up pagaras—long strings of Chinese firecrackers—in order to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. The length of a pagara sometimes reflects a business’s success in the previous year, and some pagaras can last as long as half an hour once lit! The lighting of a pagara is no small deal; the event is scheduled days in advance so that as many onlookers as possible can attend.
On April 27, the Dutch Kingdom celebrates the official birthday and coronation of its beloved king, King Willem Alexander. On Aruba, this special day is filled with activities including official ceremonies, kite-flying competitions, sporting events, parades featuring national music, and other family activities, all of which encourage and reflect national unity and togetherness.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus, and true to their Dutch roots, Arubans celebrate the tradition of this saint and his penchant for gift-giving. In mid-November, Arubans welcome Sinterklaas, his white horse, and his handful of helpers, called Zwarte Pieten, as they sail into Aruba’s harbor from Spain. On the days leading up to his feast day, December 6, Sinterklaas—with his long white beard, bishop’s robes, and golden staff—makes appearances at schools and stores all across the island; his ever-amusing Zwarte Pieten are always in tow, carrying sacks filled with treats for children. Most anticipated of all are the evenings leading up to and including the night of December 5, when Sinterklaas leaves chocolate letters and coins, gingerbread cookies, and small toys in the shoes of good Aruban boys and girls.