My Beautiful Puerto Rico: Our Christmas Traditions

The last months of the year mark the beginning of the preparations, and the celebrations of the holiday season. It’s the time of the year where many people enjoy decorating their homes, visiting or receiving family, and preparing to celebrate Christmas Day and the New Year.

Art by Belmar Alvarado
displayed at Alvarado family celebration 2017

These festivities are observed around the world in many countries. Most celebrations have a religious influence, mainly related to the observation of the birth of Jesus, particularly in countries where Christianity and Catholicism are practiced. Other traditions, like Santa Claus delivering gifts on the night before Christmas, are influenced by older cultures from Europe.

Christmas decorations on Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan

In Puerto Rico, many traditions were brought over and imposed by the first Spaniard settlers. The Island was for many years under Spain government. Many of their celebrations were adopted and have been passed on generation after generation. When Puerto Rico became a commonwealth under the government of the United States of America, some of their traditions were also acquired. That’s how Puerto Ricans added the Christmas tree and the visits from Santa Claus.

Christmas decorations in Yauco

As promoted by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the Island is a tropical paradise all year around. With no harsh winter, no extreme cold temperature, no snowfall, weather is almost perfect. Christmas season is warm, and is full of lovely traditions. The Tourism Company published this article “Holiday Traditions in Puerto Rico” with a list of some of those traditions, check here https://www.discoverpuertorico.com/list/holiday-traditions-puerto-rico.

Besides the weather, another peculiarity about how we celebrate is that Christmas season in Puerto Rico is considered to be the longest in the world. See this article “The longest Christmas in the world is in Puerto Rico” http://www.kariculture.net/en/the-longest-christmas-in-the-world-is-in-puerto-rico/.

Let’s take a look:

The Christmas Tree – Yes, we put up a beautiful Christmas tree trimmed with decorations, usually by Thanksgiving. Although there is no snow during winter, natural pine trees are shipped to the Island and sold there. Since Puerto Rico suffered so much in the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017, I’ve seen many friends and family all around the Island putting up their Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. The tree stays up usually until January 7th, the day after the Three Kings Day (also known as Three Wise Men Day, or Epiphany Day). Some people keep it up until mid-January.

Christmas tree at Plaza Las Americas Mall in San Juan

The music – Our music is very festive. You hear the guitar accords of an “aguinaldo”, you immediately think of Christmas. Aguinaldos are part of a folkloric genre of Christmas music in many Latin American countries. Parrandas in Puerto Rico are the equivalent to caroling. A group of people gather with instruments, and go from house to house, bringing the music and singing as a surprise to the receiver. The receiver offers food and drinks to the visitors.

Parranda! Photo courtesy of Adriana Alvarado

Parrandas are a sweet memory of my childhood, of good times spent with family. My Dad used to gather friends, get all of us kids in the car, go visit family and do parrandas all night. We’d visit a bunch of houses, then come back home in the early hours of the next day.

My Dad and his guitar

Here I share a parranda, performed by my cousins at the Alvarado family celebration. This was in 2018, after the Hurricane María. There was no electricity at the center where they performed, so they were working with generators. Check here (singing in Spanish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgmtoBCQgxQ&t=0s.

The food – our delicious Puerto Rican food! The mention of our food brings back good memories too. Now, I never sat down to learn how to make all these recipes from my Mom, aunties and grandmas (shame, I know), but I remember our preparations and cooking sessions. I also remember the awesome smell from all the mix of species, whether sweet or savory. Trust me, those smells still bring back memories of those moments.

Puerto Rican typical Christmas dish
roasted pork, rice with pigeon peas and a pastel

Lechón asado (whole pig roasted, roasted pork) – every year, every Christmas gathering has to include a whole pig roasted, or at least roasted pork. Some families celebrate on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Day. There are also gatherings for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. At some point during Christmas season, there’s gonna be roasted pork.

Ñame (root vegetable), roasted pork and a pastel

Pasteles – Pasteles! Are made of a sort of dough made from mashed green bananas and root vegetables, filled with cooked meat (pork or chicken), wrapped and cooked in banana leaves. I remember that our family had an assembly line to make pasteles, where each of us kids had an assignment: set up the piece of banana leaf with oil, put a scoop of the dough, put a scoop of cooked meat, fold the banana leaf with mix, and tie it up. I used to love tying them up, I had my process. Then all the pasteles would go to the freezer, to be cooked later, or to the hot boiling water for at least one hour.

Arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) – This is another traditional dish, included in the Christmas dinner. I’m not a fan of beans or peas, but these peas are small so I tolerate them. Now, this I have mastered, I think I have. I include it in my Thanksgiving and my Christmas menu. My maternal grandmother used to cook her rice “al fogón” -on an outside set-up burner, like camping style-. Her flavors were unique and unforgettable.

Rice with pigeon peas
Photo courtesy of José Herminio Zayas

Arroz con dulce (sweet rice pudding) – this is another typical dish seeing most often during Christmas. This is a recipe that I wished I had learned to make from my grandmothers, or my mom or my aunties. This rice is cooked in coconut milk and water, with spices including, cinnamon, cloves, and aniseed. After being cooked, is better served cold. This was also both my grandmothers’ specialty.

Tembleque on top, rice pudding below

Tembleque – is a creamy and delicious coconut pudding. The name “tembleque” refers to its consistency. It means that it’s wiggly, it “moves”. It’s made with coconut milk, sugar, salt and cornstarch, to help give it its pudding consistency.

Coquito – is a sweet drink made with a mix of milk and coconut cream. It’s often called the Puerto Rican “eggnog” version. Although some people put eggs in it, like in eggnog, the majority of my friends and family don’t use eggs. Some people prefer it with alcohol, preferably rum, but this is not necessary to enjoy a glass of coquito. My personal recipe: I mix one can each of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream of coconut; I also add 2 cans of coconut milk, 1 tsp of cinnamon, 1 tsp of vanilla extract, and the Puerto Rican rum is optional (of course, it has to be Puerto Rican). I say optional because not everyone likes adding alcohol. I have kids, so I don’t add alcohol. Mix well, preferably in blender or mixer, and chill. Tastes better when cold.

Coquito! Photo courtesy
of Auranyd Alvarado

The celebrations – One of the things we inherited from the Spaniard’s culture, is the Catholic traditions. Christmas is, as in the U.S. and many other countries, when the birth of Jesus is celebrated. These are traditions that are still observed in Puerto Rico.

Misas de Aguinaldo (Aguinaldo masses) – It’s a tradition for Catholics to celebrate an early morning mass, regularly at 5:30 in the morning, for nine days before Christmas Day.

Aguinaldo Mass at San Blás Parish in Coamo

Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s or Midnight Mass) – On Christmas Eve, a mass is celebrated at midnight. Its time and name are traditions because it’s said that the only time that a rooster crowed at midnight was on the day that Jesus was born.

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) – is the celebration of the night before Christmas. Many Puerto Ricans celebrate with family on this day, with food, music and gifts.

Christmas Day – the main celebration for this day, from the religious standpoint, and what most of us grew up with, is to commemorate the birth of Jesus. For many kids, the celebration is the visit of Santa. In recent decades, kids in Puerto Rico expect the visit of Santa Claus, of course interested in receiving gifts. I remember when we were kids, Santa didn’t visit our house. My Mom said that Santa needed snow for his sleigh, and there is no snow in Puerto Rico. Luckily, Santa fixed his sleigh to visit all around the world, since he has become popular all around the world.

New Year’s Day – This celebration starts on New Year’s Eve. Families get together to receive the New Year with music, food, and fireworks. New Year’s Day is also a day to visit family, and of course to keep celebrating with music and food.

The Three Kings Day – This is a tradition we also inherited from Spain. Puerto Rico has kept this tradition, and there are many parades and activities dedicated to the Three Kings or Three Wise Men on this day. I remember when we were kids we used to receive gifts from the Kings, not from Santa. Kids pick up grass for the camels, put it under the tree and wait for gifts.

Tres Reyes Magos, art by Belmar Alvarado

It’s tradition on this day for kids and families to visit the Governor’s mansion in San Juan to receive toys. A famous parade for the Three Kings takes place in the town of Juana Díaz. It has been celebrated for over 135 years. There is a museum in this town that inaugurated in 2004. The Juana Díaz Three Kings Museum was the first dedicated to the Three Kings.

Monument to the Magi (Three Kings) in Juana Díaz

Another celebration, very dear and close to my family, is the Alvarado’s Three Kings Day family celebration (la Fiesta del Día de Reyes de los Alvarado). It has been celebrated for over 40 years in the town of Orocovis. My family, and any Alvarado family, are invited to enjoy the celebration, where families bring “parrandas”, food and there are gifts for little kids. I haven’t been able to enjoy it in a while, since I live in Florida.

Three Kings at Alvarado family celebration in Orocovis. Photo courtesy of Auranyd Alvarado

Octavitas – The celebration continues for eight days after the Epiphany or Three King’s day. People are to reciprocate those parrandas they received, or invite people over because they were not home during a parranda. Well, why not? we get more days to celebrate.

Alvarado family at San Sebastián Street Festival

The San Sebastián Street Festival (Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián) – to mark the end of the holidays, this is a popular festival celebrated in Old San Juan. This is celebrated the 3rd Thursday of January until Sunday. Local artists and artisans fill the streets showcasing their hand-made products and art. Live music and impromptu dancing is seen all around. There’s a parade of “Los cabezudos”, people dressed up in costume with oversized heads of different characters that identify Puerto Rican culture.

Los “cabezudos” at the San Sebastián Street Festival

As a proud Puerto Rican living outside the Island, I know there are many others that miss spending Christmas in Puerto Rico. Here in the United States, as in other countries, many groups organize different activities to get together and celebrate with others, reminding us all of what we grew up with, how our families enjoy this time of year.

Christmas time is my favorite time of the year. I try to keep these traditions as if I was in the Island. I do celebrate as if I were in Puerto Rico. My kids get excited because they get extra gifts. I remind them this is how Christmas is celebrated by our family. I hope they keep celebrating our Puerto Rican traditions, no matter where they live.

It’s time to enjoy these celebrations with my family. It’s also time for my tacita de café. I might be getting a glass of coquito too. Salud! Feliz Navidad!

Para versión en español, vea https://fullofcoffee.blog/2019/12/20/mi-hermoso-puerto-rico:-nuestras-tradiciones-navidenas/.