Christmas in Puerto Rico
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Happy Holidays to everyone! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Epiphany Day (Día de los Tres Reyes Magos), New Year's, or a combination, the holidays are an exciting and warm time. Here in Puerto Rico, most people typically celebrate Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany Day, and the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian. This translates to one of, if not the, longest holiday season in the world! These main festivities are times for family gathering, amazing food, prayer and thankfulness. They are at the core of our Puerto Rican identity. Let's explore some of the most important traditions and where they came from!
For starters, by mid-November it is not unusual to see people driving with their recently bought Christmas tree all tied up on the top of their cars. Each one on its way to bring joy and fresh pine smell to many homes. Interestingly enough, the Christmas tree tradition came to Puerto Rico from Germany! Back in 1866, the renowned Puerto Rican botanist Agustín Stahl, whose parents were German, decorated a tree in Bayamón (in northern Puerto Rico) following the German tradition. Since then, the Christmas tree has been a symbol of the holidays in Puerto Rico--and can stay up until mid-January or so to keep with the long Christmas season. We decorate it with ornaments, that might range from Nativities, Santas, Three Kings, multicolored laces, typical musical instruments, tiny toys, little dolls, hearts, pascuas (poinsettias), snowmen, gingerbread kids, snowflakes, bells, lights, and a star or an angel on top. Even a few pictures of family members or candy canes, perhaps?
Zoomed-in view of some ornaments of the Hatillo Christmas tree in Cataño.
Speaking of candy canes, where did they originate? Once again, all signs point to Germany! According to a National Geographic article, they were not mint-flavored or curved in their early forms. At first, they were all white. Rumor has it they got their signature curve to mimic a shepherd's cane to entertain little ones during Mass in a Cologne Church. They were also possibly made to calm crying babies with a sugary pacifier. The likely reason for the shape, however, was to make their placement on trees easier. The article adds that the 1800s brought forth the red stripes and the minty taste courtesy of the United States. Folklore has it that the white color symbolizes the purity of Christ, while the red represents the blood He shed for us.
Puerto Ricans have music and rhythm flowing through our veins. During Christmas season, music and rhythm take the shape of a "parranda". A group of people will go from house to house with their maracas, guiros, palitos, cuatros, guitars, panderetas, and other musical instruments. Parrandas are usually impromptu and a surprise to the family the group visits. Think of it as the Puerto Rican version of caroling, but way more upbeat. People sing and dance to Christmas songs like "El Coquí", "Dame la Mano Paloma", “El Jolgorio”, “El Fuá”, “El Cardenalito”, and many others. A fun activity during parrandas is singing a "Bomba". A group starts by singing a standard chorus about how this African music genre is full of flow. Then they all shout: "Bomba!". One person recites a funny verse that rhymes. If the group likes it, they repeat the chorus. If not, the group lets them know they lack bomba skills ("¡No sabe 'na, no sabe na, no sabe na' de bomba, no sabe na'!") The party ends on the wee hours with an asopao (Puerto Rico's hearty national soup).
A parranda in Comunidad Puente Blanco.
Baking sugar cookies is a Christmas tradition kids love. These cookies are a British creation. A 16th century cookbook first mentioned shortbread cookies, which are a cousin of sugar cookies. Dutch and German immigrants brought decorations and cookie cutters to the United States, making for the characteristic festive shapes we know today. The tradition to leave cookies for Santa originated during the Great Depression. It was encouraged by parents to leave the cookies as an act of kindness even in the toughest times.
My homemade Christmas cookies.
Coconut and more coconut
If you ask many, Christmas in Puerto Rico is not complete without coquito! Coquito is the Puerto Rican version of eggnog but coconut-based. It is an adult beverage that is rich, thick, and sweet. According to Cruz Ortiz Cuadra, author of Puerto Rico en la olla, in an article by El Nuevo Día, coquito as we know it arose on the island near the start of American colonization. The US brought over items like condensed milk into greater accessibility, which is essential for coquito. And so, it became a staple Christmas beverage along with our signature coconut and cinnamon touch! Other Christmas desserts that showcase coconut include "tembleque" and "arroz con dulce". Tembleque is a type of coconut milk pudding, while arroz con dulce is a sweetened rice pudding. Tembleque originated here in Puerto Rico, but coconut did come from West Africa (Cabo Verde, to be exact). Its texture can be compared to Italian panna cotta or a thick jello. Arroz con dulce comes from a French dish, "gateau de riz", or rice cake. We are a flavorful multicultural bunch, as you can see!
My homemade arroz con dulce.
Misas de Aguinaldo
Noteworthy to mention are the "Misas de Aguinaldo". The Catholic Church, a faith brought by Spain, celebrates these special Masses during the eight or nine days leading up to Christmas Eve. But wait--they're held no later than 6:00 am! This means people will get up while it is still dark outside. They worship with songs to the happy beat of their musical instruments (like the güiro, maracas, and palitos, or sticks). These Masses are very upbeat despite the early hour...and sometimes include raffles at the end! Once Mass concludes a light breakfast is typically served: hot chocolate, coffee, bread with butter, and donuts. Or, for the daring, morcillas! These are the Puerto Rican version of British blood puddings, some with rice inside…for some, an acquired taste.
A statue of a güiro in Peñuelas.
Noche Buena (Christmas' Eve)
In Puerto Rico, Christmas Eve is the most important day of the Christmas season. That night, many will attend "Misa de Gallo", or Rooster Mass, translated literally. It is a Mass given at around midnight in anticipation of Christ's birth. Before it, the families gather for a large dinner filled with music, dance, and gifts exchange. The star of the meal is "lechón", or pork, along with a crunchy "cuerito" (pig skin). This tradition to eat pork comes from our Christian roots. Because Muslims and Jews cannot eat it, it was seen as a sign of Christianity in Reconquista-era Spain. Pork is, however, not the only dish served! Additionally, there will be "pasteles", which are made of a case of mashed plantain mixed with root vegetables filled with pork or chicken, wrapped in plantain leaves to be boiled. Those are called “pasteles de masa”, they are also made only with yucca. There is an ongoing dispute on whether they should be topped with ketchup. Interestingly, this sauce was inspired by a Chinese fish sauce, which passed through the UK, and then the US to become the tomato sauce we know today. So, tell me, “con o sin ketchup?”. These, as mentioned in the African Heritage webinar, come from Puerto Rico's West African roots. Our West African ancestors had the custom to wrap food in plantain leaves to make it seem like gifts. Very fitting for this time! Alongside these will be "arroz con gandules", or rice with pigeon peas. Pigeon peas come from West Africa, as well. According to Cruz Ortiz Cuadra, they were originally served with rice due to the concordance with the harvest season of the peas. Christmas Eve is a time to eat...for sure! The kids will resist going to bed early waiting for Santa Claus to bring them gifts. Santa came from Saint Nicholas, a Turkish monk, and was made popular in the Netherlands. However, it was the Americans who brought him to the island.
Roasted whole pork by my cousins.
The Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus at Parroquia Santa Teresita.
Nativity scene of a humble house after Hurricane María at Parroquia Santa Teresita.
Three Kings' Day
Three Kings Day is widely celebrated in Puerto Rico alongside Christmas Day! (Puerto Rican kids get gifts on Christmas AND Three Kings...Score!!!). School does not start until after this celebration which takes place on January 6th. The tradition came with the Spanish. The holiday celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings to Bethlehem to pay homage to Baby Jesus. During the night of January 5th, (Víspera de Reyes), kids will leave grass in shoeboxes for the Three Kings (or the Three Wise Men)'s camels to eat. The next morning, the kings will have left gifts under the kids' beds (or under the tree, as well, it depends!). Another tradition is "Promesa de Reyes" (Promise to the Three Kings). A person will promise something to the Wise Men in return for a favor. For example, a sick child was cured after the promise, so the person who asked for the favor will pray and worship in return.
It is impossible to mention the Three Kings in Puerto Rico without talking about the Three Kings of Juana Díaz! According to the Three Kings of Juana Diaz's official website, their festivity may be seen as the oldest religious/cultural celebration in all of Latin America. Since 1884, they have been hosting a large party in their home town, Juana Díaz. This idea is mainly accredited to the Spanish priest, Father Valentín Echevarría. Later on, in 1986, the Wise Men went on tour! It is a tradition for them to go around the island in a caravan and greet onlookers every January 6. They've even gone on a world tour, visiting places like Italy, the Vatican, Spain, Mexico, and the US!
The Three Kings at Museo de las Américas. Art by Isaac Laboy Monteczuma, Collection of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.
Light exhibition of the Three Kings in Mayagüez.
Saint Sebastian Street Festival
To wrap up the season, the Saint Sebastian Street Festival (Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian) is held on the third weekend of January. They honor Saint Sebastian, a French martyr. They were originally created in the late 1950s to raise funds for the San José Church besides Saint Sebastian Street in Old San Juan, where the festivals are now held. Later in the 70s, Rafaela Balladares resumed the festivals in the name of Puerto Rican heritage and culture. Aren’t the thousands of attendees happy about that! During the festivals, there will be several parades, artisans, pleneros (musicians playing hand-held drums), and food, especially alcapurrias (stuffed green banana and root vegetables fritters), bacalaítos (codfish fritters), and piraguas (snow cones). Another highlight are the "cabezudos", that look like living bobblehead caricatures, or papier-machée big heads.
Cabezudos at Museo de las Américas.
Honoring the late Rafaela Balladares at Museo de las Américas.
Hope you are inspired to visit Puerto Rico someday to enjoy our holiday season. Stay tuned for the European Heritage webinar in late January and Happy Holidays once again!
Stay safe, stay cultured,
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