Christmas in Puerto Rico starts early on, for some like my friend María Espada, it starts right after Thanksgiving, which is the Advent or the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. There are many celebrations that make “Navidad en Puerto Rico” such a special time, the most famous traditions?: The “parrandas”or “asaltos navideños” especially on Christmas Eve and “Los Tres Reyes.”
The Epiphany is the main celebration. On January 6 “Los Reyes” or The Three Wise Men arrive to bring offerings to baby Jesus. Christmas day, meaning “Nochebuena” is another celebration but not as important as The Three Kings.
What Are the Parrandas?
Las Parrandas are a unique tradition where a group of friends or family known as the “trulla,” goes unannounced over a neighbor’s house very late at night to sing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas carols composed of six-syllable verse lines. The songs they sing are called “aguinaldos” or gifts.
The carolers may also be with other musicians playing typical instruments like maracas, triangles or the “guiro,” an instrument made of a hollow wood shell from the skin of a fruit called “higuera”.
The “trulla” or carolers continue until they are invited inside the home to share in delicious Christmas treats like marzipan, papaya sweets, rice with coconut, and flavorful alcoholic drinks.
After a while, the “trulla” has even more people in the party and moves on to another block or another home where they eat and party some more. This keeps on repeating until the early hours of the next day.
The “asaltos navideños” remain a tradition of Christmas in Puerto Rico but to a lesser degree, and it is definitely more common in Puerto Rico than among Puerto Ricans in the U.S.
La “Nochebuena” or the Puerto Rican Christmas Eve
Christmas in Puerto Rico has a mid-point, it is the 24th of December when Puerto Ricans dress finely to attend mass and celebrate with a great dinner afterwards. Children get some presents that night from Baby Jesus and the parents but they will receive even more on January 6th.
In Puerto Rico Christmas also includes “misas de aguinaldo,” which are masses that churches celebrate with music and carols at dawn, generally between 5:00 am and 6:00 am during the nine days before Christmas.
Puerto Rican Christmas Foods
Chirstmas in Puerto Rico is an occasion to reunite the family and enjoy the simple things in life like cooking together. “Nochebuena” usually includes a special dish, like roasted pork or “lechon asao.” The roasting of the pig on a stick is a big event filled with happy music, guests, and family all preparing the meal.
Other dishes include ham, and sometimes turkey (an American influence.) Maria tells me: “We serve the main dish with arroz con gandules y tostones, which are rice with pigeon peas and fried plantains.”
Boricuas also enjoy “pasteles” ot tamales which are mashed green bananas filled with meat and other vegetables, all cooked in boiling water and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves.
Christmas in Puerto Rico is also enjoyed with desserts that are infused with flavors of native ingredients. For example the famous “arroz con dulce” which is rice cooked with spices, sugar, milk, and coconut milk, and “tembleque” a custard made with cornstarch, sugar, and coconut milk. Another popular sweet dish during the holidays is “nougat” which is imported from Spain.
One thing is for sure, no Puerto Rican Christmas celebration is complete without the typical punch “coquito” which is made with water, cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger, evaporated milk, and rum.
Three Kings Day, the Most Important Celebration in Puerto Rican Christmas
María Gaura explains in her article for the San Francisco Chronicle: “Home for the holidays: Celebrating Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico” what the celebration is about: “Three Kings Day, or El Día de los Reyes Magos, celebrates the biblical story of the three kings who saw a star appear in the sky on Christmas Day and followed that beacon to a livestock shed in Bethlehem, where they found, and worshiped, the newborn Jesus.”
Children in Puerto Rico expect presents from both, baby Jesus or the parents and The Three Kings. The tradition on the evening of the Epiphany on January 5 is for the children to leave grass and water for “Los Reyes” camels’ to eat.
María Espada says that some Puerto Ricans still observe the traditional “Octavas” -octaves and the “Octavitas” -Little Octaves. They are two-eight-day periods of continuing adoration of “The Three Kings” and baby Jesus from January 9 on. The “Octavitas” are right after the “Octavas.”
Traditional Decor for Christmas in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico the Christmas tree is more of a “new tradition” that started in the 1960s. Instead, nativities have always been part of the tradition. They are placed underneath the tree. Baby Jesus makes his way to the manger on December the 24th and the three kings keep getting closer to the manger as January 6 approaches.
Today many homes also display figures of Santa Claus but he is not who brings the presents on “Nochebuena,” it is the parents or baby Jesus. Although many traditions are truly religious in nature, it is evident several American traditions have also reached the island.
Christmas in Puerto Rico is a unique celebration that lasts more than a month for many. It is also a time to get closer to your religious traditions and honor them, and there is no doubt that all these celebrations are incredibly fun and different from other Hispanic Christmas traditions.