Christmas in Puerto Rico

by Robert J. Starszak

Puerto Rico is an island located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands.

Reveling during las Navidades (“the Christmases”, or the Christmas season) in Puerto Rico is best exemplified by trullas, which are small bands of carolers who traditionally arrive unannounced (and uninvited) at the home of a person known to them and sing Christmas songs at the doorstep to the sound of different string and percussion instruments (the term parranda is used to denote the merrymaking associated with trullas). This song-filled asalto or crashing of the acquaintance’s home usually takes place very late at night. The members of the trulla continue singing and playing until their prospective host lets them in for drinks and refreshments.

For several days before Christmas, Catholic churches throughout the island celebrate a special Mass before sunrise known as Misa de Aguinaldo (the aguinaldo being a type of Puerto Rican Christmas carol). This liturgical practice reaches its climax on Nochebuena (literally, “Good Night”, or Christmas Eve) with the celebration of Midnight Mass, commonly known as Misa de Gallo (“Rooster Mass”) after the ancient tradition of celebrating the Mass of the Nativity at the time the rooster crows. As in other countries, Puerto Ricans observe Christmas Day by exchanging gifts, visiting friends and relatives, and feasting.

December 28 marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the calendar of the Catholic Church, of which most Puerto Ricans are members. This feast commemorates the mass slaying of male children in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus Christ. As the Gospel account goes, King Herod of Judea was not pleased to find out that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (whom he regarded as a threat to his own throne) may have already been born in Bethlehem as Hebrew prophets had foretold for centuries; therefore, he ordered that all male children 2 years of age and under living in the town be put to death. Of course, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt thwarted Herod’s plans to eliminate the real Messiah. Catholics honor these slain children as martyrs in Heaven.

Given the date of its observance, Holy Innocents’ Day falls right in the middle of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico. While the feast recalls a tragic event in Bible history, Puerto Ricans may observe it by playing practical jokes on those who are inocentes (“innocents” or naïve) just as Americans do on April Fools’ Day (as with many Christmas customs in the island, the prank-playing associated with Holy Innocents’ Day is of Spanish origin). The towns of Hatillo and Moca are known for celebrating the feast as Día de las Máscaras (“Masks Day”) with some carnival-type revelry.

Children in Puerto Rico acknowledge both Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings, as they are known locally) as holiday gift-bearers, but there has been an increased emphasis on celebrating the coming of the Three Kings given the island’s Spanish heritage. On the evening of January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, children leave grass (preferably in an empty shoebox) and water for the Wise Men’s camels in expectation of their arrival with gifts (curiously, wooden figures carved by local artisans show the Magi riding on horses instead of camels). The Feast of the Epiphany (Día de Reyes or “Kings’ Day”) on January 6 marks a festive end to the Christmas season in Puerto Rico; on this day, the island’s Governor hosts a large celebration in the capital San Juan where thousands of children are treated to presents, and refreshments and musical entertainment are provided to attendees. For those wishing to forego the festivities in San Juan, towns throughout Puerto Rico host similar but smaller Día de Reyes celebrations, the best known taking place in Juana Díaz on the southern coast. Some Puerto Ricans may still observe the traditional Octavitas (“Little Octaves”), which are an eight-day period of continuing Christmas celebrations after the Epiphany.

The main dishes served in Puerto Rico during the Christmas season include lechón asado (roast pig), arroz con gandules (rice cooked with pigeon peas), and pasteles, which are similar to tamales but are made with yellow rice, mashed cassava, or mashed plantain instead of corn meal. Pasteles may be filled with ground or shredded meat, chick peas, olives, and raisins. Coquito is a very popular punch drink made with coconut milk and white rum, among other ingredients. A typical Christmas dessert in Puerto Rico may include tembleque (a firm coconut pudding) or arroz con dulce (white rice cooked with coconut milk and raisins); both are usually topped with ground cinnamon. Other holiday foods popular in the island are turrón (a hard white nougat with almonds imported from Spain), apple cider (also a Spanish import), nuts, and assorted candies.

Puerto Rican Christmas music is defined mainly by two types of carols: the villancico and the aguinaldo. The villancico, which originated in Spain, is a religious ballad whose theme is related to the Nativity, such as the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the adoration of the Christ Child by the shepherds, or the coming of the Three Wise Men. The aguinaldo, on the other hand, is mainly secular and more spirited. In the more traditional, folkloric aguinaldos, we are told of visiting and bringing flowers to friends, sending greetings of the season, singing, feasting, and falling in love during Christmas. One well-known religious aguinaldo, Dios Bendiga el Santo Nombre de Jesús (“God Bless the Holy Name of Jesus”), mentions Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion, yet it is actually played and sung during Christmas. Humorous aguinaldos remind us, for instance, of the poor pig which became Christmas dinner or of how much the singer will cry if he is not given a drink. Some of the newer aguinaldos may not necessarily have a Christmas theme, yet their folksy, tierra adentro (deep-country) style and their release over the airwaves during Christmastime make them instant holiday favorites for the coming years (the term aguinaldo is also used in Puerto Rico to describe a small Christmas gift (usually cash or liquor) given to service providers such as mail carriers or trash collectors). Puerto Ricans also enjoy Christmas carols and songs popular in America which have been translated into Spanish, such as Noche de Paz (“Silent Night”), Blanca Navidad (“White Christmas”), Cascabel (“Jingle Bells”), and El Tamborilero (“The Little Drummer Boy”), as well as works written by local popular-music composers.

Although Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, Spanish is the dominant language. Therefore, the main Christmas greetings are Feliz Navidad, Felices Pascuas, and Felicidades.

The information given above on Puerto Rico was researched and written by one of the members of the Christmas International group who is originally from that beautiful island.

While stationed at Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico, I did Christmas shopping at Plaza las Americas in San Juan. Unlike the photo on the right, it was filled with people. It seemed to be more than just a shopping center, but an attraction for tourists and a meeting place for Puerto Ricans. There was a religious article store that sold unique figures and buildings for Nativity scenes unlike anything available in the United States. The food court in the plaza featured some special Christmas-type foods during December, therefore tourists had an opportunity to try some of the things mentioned above. - Bill Egan

Song: Ay Del Chiquirritin

© 2007 by W. C. Egan

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