Carnival is all about tradition, starting with the fact that most Caribbean Carnival celebrations take place in the week leading up to the beginning of Lent each spring. But Carnivals also evolve, and nowhere is this more evident than in Aruba.
In 2014, Aruba marked the 60th anniversary of its "Carnaval" celebration, always a highlight for island residents but perhaps less noticed by Aruba visitors. Organizers are hoping to change all that, however, beginning with making the 2014 celebration the grandest ever.
Preparations for Carnival 2014 began the very second the final ember went out of last year’s burning of King Momo, whose fiery death signifies a cleansing of past sins, a new start, and the official end of each Carnival season.
No one was disappointed: it was epic. Aruba’s parades and pageants are a colorful kaleidoscope of feathers, sequins, glitter, frills and infectious rhythms, but they’re not your typical processions of ‘winin’ and ‘grindin’. Though the costumes and music are similar to many other Caribbean islands, the dancing is almost demure by comparison, and the atmosphere is intrinsically lighter.
That’s not to say that Arubans aren’t passionate about Carnival; in fact, for many it’s almost a religion. The time commitment requirements are brutal, and costumes and floats can cost thousands, but even those with demanding day jobs find the time to participate. Carnaval is a way of life.
“My grandparents were in Carnaval, my parents were in Carnaval, and I am always in Carnaval parades as well," says Sjeidy Feliciano, a spokesperson for the Aruba Tourism Authority. "It’s just part of who we are. Yes, it can be demanding, and costly, and sometimes hard to find the time to participate fully, but it’s also a wonderful way for us to connect face-to-face with each other throughout the year- see family, friends, community, and to express our creativity and culture."
"It’s not so much about having a big six-week long party in the streets as it is about truly celebrating who we are as a people, and inviting the world to come and celebrate with us," she adds.
San Nicolas Carnival Renaissance
Aruba’s Carnaval began in fits and spurts in the now sleepy little town of San Nicolas, which was once the island’s bustling capital city during its oil refinery heyday. During the Second World War, the town they called Sunrise City was an important part of the Allied war effort. The busy refinery attracted migrant works from all over the region – Trinidad, Jamaica, Suriname, Latin America, and even Asia. And they brought with them many of their traditions like making steel drums out of oil barrels.
There was also a strong American community that had its own social club, where residents would often throw gala masquerade balls. Dutch Carnival traditions found their way into the mix, as well.
Over time, Aruba’s Carnaval evolved into a tapestry woven by its many adopted nationalities, until a formal committee was created to organize the annual events. Though much of the main galas like the Grand Parade have since been moved to Oranjestad, San Nicolas has always played an important part. The 3 a.m. "jump-up" to the sunrise – now often called the “pajama party” -- is bigger and better than ever, and the addition of a Lighting Parade the night before has also breathed new life into the town.
Also in the past few years there has been the addition of a weekly mini-carnival cultural fair called the Carubbian Festival to give visitors a taste of what the real events are like. The completion of a massive new Carnival Village is also intended to draw people to the south side of the island. The complex will eventually include a comprehensive carnival museum and workshop space that will give craftsman a place to create the costumes and floats that will ensure that the Carnival tradition continues for future generations.
The goal is to oscillate Carnival events more equally between the two cities, and also to infuse new economic growth in that region. There are also plans to create a “Carubbian Street” with a New Orleans/French Quarter vibe -- local music, dining and dancing in the streets -- to attract more visitors year-round to San Nicolas, as well.
If you’re on Aruba anywhere from the first of January until Ash Wednesday, there is bound to be a Carnival event to attend somewhere, as the season lasts anywhere from six weeks to two full months depending on the Lenten calendar. The most popular events for visitors are the many parades in Oranjestad and San Nicolas: there are multiple daytime and night time processions, and children even have their own parades replete with floats and colorful costumes.
Other events include beauty pageants and music competitions like the Caiso & Soca Monarch music competition, Carnival Jam, Great Tumba Contest, Carnaval Zumba, Carnival DJ Bash and steel band nights, and some newer events like the beer-drinking street parties of Hebbe Hebbe and Ban Djo Djo (sponsored respectively by Heineken and local Balashi beer companies). A new Flip- Flop Night carnival party on a downtown beach also is becoming very popular.
Both San Nicolas and Oranjestad have their own burning of King Momo on separate nights, and their own Lighting and Grand Parades, as well. For more information, see the Carnival pages on the Visit Aruba and Aruba Tourism websites.
Arubans are very welcoming toward outsiders joining their parties, but events can become very crowded, so be forewarned that you will be expected to exercise patience when throngs of strangers are crowding your personal space.
Bring a cell phone to arrange transportation afterward, and plan ahead for parades by getting there early and grabbing a good spot. Bring a portable chair, lots of water, sunscreen, a hat, and wear light clothing as it can get extremely hot. If you have sensitive hearing, bring earplugs as it can get very loud, as well. And don’t forget to bring your camera!