Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico are have their roots in the Roman Catholic faith, and Christmas time is when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Puerto Rico’s unique festivities have developed through history, inter-twining different cultures and belief systems to create what is often described as the longest Christmas holiday in the world.
Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico are set against a background of warm temperatures and a hospitable, tropical climate, which may seem strange to anyone used to a “White Christmas”. At this time of year, many Puerto Riqueňos who live or work overseas, especially in the United States, come home to be reunited with their family. This makes Christmas a special time, and for most, this is a time of celebration, laughter and joy/
Puerto Rican people seem to adore Christmas, with various celebrations beginning at the end of November and lasting until almost the middle of January. The Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico today can be traced back to the Spanish Colonial Period(1493-1898), when missionaries brought the Christian faith to the island. Over the years the Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico have changed and adapted with the influx of people of different cultures and nationalities, but the core celebrations remain the same.
Important Celebrations in Puerto Rico
For practising Roman Catholics, Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico begin with Misas de Aguinaldo. Taking place at dawn, for the nine days preceding Christmas Eve, the Misas are a sung mass. The Misas de Aguinaldo were first used in Mexico and Guatemala in an attempt to convert Mexican and Guatemalan people to the Christian faith. The worshippers of the sun-god celebrated his birth in December, so the missionaries encouraged them to instead celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Unique to the Caribbean the Misas de Aguinalda include songs about Mary’s (Jesus’ mother) pregnancy, her journey to Bethlehem with her husband Joseph, and their search for shelter there. Singing is accompanied by local music including the cuatro, a small eight stringed guitar invented in Puerto Rico, maracas and guiros, which are made from dried gourds.
Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena as it is called by the Puerto Ricans, falls on 24th December. For many families, this is the night where everyone gathers together and enjoys a feast of special and festive cuisine. People may dance, play party games and generally enjoy their time together. Even those who are not Catholic enjoy celebrating Noche Buena. Catholic people usually attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This is called the Misa de Gallo, the Rooster Mass, and is an atmospheric candle-lit event.
Christmas, Navidad, falls on the 25th December, and is the day when Christians give thanks for the birth of Jesus. Unlike many parts of the Western World, Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico mean that children do not always receive a gift on Christmas day. This comes later on the Feast of the Epiphany in January.
For Puerto Rican people, Santa or Father Christmas is a new addition to the festive scene, having only been introduced in the 1940s from North America. Some people believe that Santa, and other American traditions are pushing Puerto Rican traditions aside, and try to preserve their heritage by forgoing Christmas trees, turkeys etc.
The next big festival during the Christmas period is the Dia de los Inocentes, Day of the Innocents, on 28th December. Thought to have arrived on Puerto Rico with immigrants originating from the Canary Islands, the festival remembers the bible story which tells of King Herod’s order to massacre all baby boys. He did this as he wanted to prevent the prophecy that Jesus would become King of the Jews from coming true.
This used to be a massive event, celebrated throughout the whole of the island but now the main carnival takes place in Hatillo, where it is known as a Day of Masks, as many people wear costume. Traditional celebrations involved “soldiers” going from door to door and taking away the first born boy from each family. Villagers would give the soldiers sweets to get their children back. Now, the day is mostly treated as an excuse to play pranks on friends, much like April Fool’s Day in the United States.
Christmas is followed closely by the end of the year, known in Puerto Rico as the Despedida de Aňo. People gather to celebrate the end of the year, perhaps watching the televised broadcast of the big event at the Puerto Rico Convention Centre in San Juan, or listening to the traditional new Year poem “El Brindis de Bohemio”. At midnight, everyone tries to eat 12 grapes – one for each chime of the clock, which is said to represent luck in each month of the year to come. Some people also sprinkle sugar around their house for good fortune, or throw a bucket of water out of their window to disperse negative energy.
For kids, the most exciting day does not come until the 6th January, Epiphany, or as it is known in Puerto Rico, Dia de Los Reyes – the Day of the Kings. On the eve of Los Reyes arrival, children gather grass which they place in a box under their bed. Much like European and American children who leave a carrot for Santa’s reindeer, the grass is a gift for the camels which the Reyes use as transport.
The three King tradition in Puerto Rico dates back to 1884, in Juana Diaz, which is sometimes called the city of the three kings and has a museum dedicated to them. The Three Kings names, as any Puerto Rican child will tell you are Melchor the Moorish king, Gaspar the young king and Baltasar the bearded king. Gifts are given on this day to represent the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which the Kings were said to have given to Jesus.
Children are often told that bad children receive only charcoal from the Kings, ensuring good behaviour throughout the year! Many families travel to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico on the day of the kings, as gifts are given to all children who attend. The lines can stretch for miles, as excited children await their chance to receive a present.
For most families, Los Reyes marks the end of Christmas, as many people go back to work the following day. However, old Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico still left one final obligation to draw an end to the season. On the Octavas and the Octavitas, eight days after Epiphany, people used to make a return visit to anyone who they visited on 6th January. Very few people still follow this custom these days, although some choose to use this date to take down any remaining Christmas decorations.
Other Christmas Traditions in Puerto Rico
One of the essential Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico is the unique Parrandas also called trullas navideňas. This custom takes place from November right through until the end of the Christmas season and for many Puerto Rican’s defines the festive season. Groups of friends gather, often wearing clothing which represents the typical costumes of the jibaros, countryside peasant workers.
Jibaros have come to represent the independent, hard-working and honest spirit of the Puerto Rican people. Traditionally these groups wait outside a friend’s house until they are asleep, then surprise them by singing and performing music. When the home owner awakes, they invite the visitors into the house to partake of festive food and drink and dancing.
After a while, the friends will move onto the next house as an ever-growing group, continuing on until three or four in the morning. The party concludes with a bowl of the rich, rice and chicken soup Asopao. These days, Parrandas are as likely to be planned as a surprise occasion, and Puerto Rican people know that it is a good idea to keep a stock of goodies in their pantry’s to offer visitors.
This tradition is similar to the European custom of carol singing, however the Puerto Rican’s traditionally sing Christmas songs known as Aguinaldos. Accompanied by music of guitars, wooden sticks called palitos and panderetas, a type of small drum along with other noise-makers, Aguinaldos are often fun songs, telling comical stories and taking a light-hearted look at Christmas celebrations.
The word Aguinaldos means gift, and the songs which the Parrandas perform are considered to be a gift, or message of goodwill to friends. The word came also be used for a Christmas bonus given to service providers such as delivery men.
Another type of music heard during the Christmas period is Villancico, a style which originated from the Iberia region of Spain. These religious ballads include Noche de Paz, a translated version of the popular English carol, Silent Night. Popular music also turns festive, with Bobby Capo’s hit Alegre Navidad and Chetto and Cheito Gonzalez’s Para Todos Navidad being two songs which are often played at this time.
While turkey is the main feature of some Christmas dinner tables in Puerto Rico, for most people, the season would not be complete without Lechon Asao – roast suckling pig cooked over a charcoal pit. The whole pig is usually coated with Adobo Mojado, a Puerto Rican seasoning blend which adds flavour and colour.
Other dishes which are traditionally served at Christmas include Pasteles of mashed yam, meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves, rice with pigeon peas, octopus salad and potato salad with chorizo sausage. A famous festive drink is Coquito made from coconuts and white rum, while desserts include tembleque and mojarete which are types of rice pudding. Puerto Rican’s also enjoy Turron, a type of sweetmeat, and Sidra (sparkling cider), both imported from Spain.
Local government have very much adopted the traditions of fairy lights and Christmas trees, however the typical Puerto Rican Christmas decoration is a Nacimiento/Belen. This are nativity scenes, depicting the stable where Jesus was born, and the various people who came to see him.
These are often made of wood or pottery, and some artisans specialized in creating exquisite designs. Puerto Rican families who have African family heritage sometimes choose a Belen which is made from traditional African materials and depicts black characters. Many churches arrange a life-sized Belen, with locals performing the roles of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.
Another popular decoration is the poinsettia flower, a large red bloom which is native to Mexico and flowers from Christmas until Easter.