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Puerto Rican Christmas Traditions

Asalto or trulla are other words for parranda.

Aguinaldos is what Puerto Ricans call their Christmas songs. Some of the songs are very religious and these are called villancicos. Some have a criollo flavor and they are called décimas navideñas. The rest are either traditional aguinaldos or popular Christmas songs.

Despedida de Año or Año Viejo is New Year's Eve (December 31st). It is celebrated in Borinquen with firecrackers and parties that last until morning. When the clock begins to chime for midnight some people eat one grape at every chime - for good luck. Then at midnight everyone hugs, and people go outside and honk the car horns and there are fireworks everywhere. A few minutes later most Boricuas listen to "El Brindis del Bohemio", a traditional poem for that occasion, usually heard on the radio. (We have posted this poem on our site).

Día de los Inocentes falls on December 28th. This feast used to be celebrated much like a carnival, where men dressed as the "evil soldiers of Herod" went house to house, "kidnapping" the first-born boy from every family. To recover their children, the families offered the soldiers gifts and candly. This tradition continues today in a small town called Hatillo. The town joins in a parade and later participates in a public party at the town square. This carnival originated in the Canary Islands brought to Puerto Rico by our ancestors.** The celebration in the rest of the island is more like April Fool's Day in the USA, where people trick each other.

** The "canarios" are our closest Spanish ancestors and many of our traditions and most of what makes us Hispanos comes from this ancestry.

Misa de Aguinaldo is a Catholic Mass that is almost completely a song service. Aguinaldos are sung and the musical instruments used are the traditional cuatro (Puerto Rican guitar), guitars, güiros, and maracas. Misas de Aguinaldo are held for nine consecutive days ending on the day before Christmas Eve. The mass is held at dawn (usually at 6am).

Misa de Gallo is a Misa de Aguinaldo held at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is a very solemn but festive mass often including carolers, children dressed as angels and nativity characters, and lots of candles. Many families attend this festive and beautiful mass as a tradition.

Nochebuena is Christmas Eve (December 24th). In Puerto Rico, as well as other Latin American countries, the big holiday celebration is held on Nochebuena. Family and friends get together for a festivities and traditional foods of lechón asado and pasteles. The parties often last till morning. On Christmas Day people rest from Nochebuena.

Navidad is Christmas Day (December 25th). Most modern Puerto Rican families celebrate with Santa on this day. Homes are decorated much like in the mainland but include a lot of palm trees and their branches. Families set up "nacimientos" or "pesebres". The Three Wise Men or Los Reyes are prominent in the pesebres.

Parrandas is Christmas caroling Puerto Rican style. Friends gather late in the evening to go from one house to the next singing traditional songs. The parranderos must surprise the unsuspecting friendS and wake them with their music. The home owner has already given plenty of "hints" that he is prepared to receive a parranda. The parranderos gather outside the front door and at a signal the musicians play and the rest sing. At each house they stop for a while and party, then they go to the next house. At each stop the owners of the house join the parranda and it grows in numbers during the evening.

Traditional Holiday Foods - The main dish is usually roast pork served along with arroz con gandules, plátanos, and pasteles. Pasteles are made using mashed green bananas the dough is filled with meat and is wrapped in the leaves of the banana tree. Holiday desserts include "arroz con dulce" (rice cooked with spices, sugar, milk, and coconut milk) and "tembleque" (a custard made with cornstarch, sugar, and coconut milk). They are eaten cold, when its consistency becomes solid. The nougat, imported from Spain, is another popular sweet dish during the Holidays. Coquito is the traditional holiday beverage and is made using coconut milk and rum. A roast pig on a spit, called "lechón asao," is a traditional day long event that can be done anytime during the Christmas holidays.

Víspera de Reyes is the eve of El Día de Reyes (January 5th). Traditional Catholics meet to pray the rosary and to honor the three Wise Men (saints in the Catholic faith). The children get ready to receive gifts from the three Wise Men by collecting freshly cut grass to put in a shoe box for the Wise Men's camels to eat.

Día de Reyes is on January 6th. This is much like Christmas on the mainland. Children wake up much too early to check out what Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar left them. Family and friends gather to celebrate.

January 6th - Saint Gaspar's Day of Feast

January 7th - Saint Melchor's Day of Feast

January 8th - Saint Baltazar's Day of Feast

Octavas and Octavitas - on January 9th (after the last of the Kings days) and last for eight days. Originally these were more religious in nature and were used to glorify the Reyes and the Christ child. Coplas were dedicated to the magi. Copa: "Se fueron los Reyes con mucha alegría, vienen las octavas - Dios nos de salud para celebrarlas." Octavitas began right after the Octavas and were eight more days of continued adoration. These were a prelude to la Cuaresma (lent).

More recently . . . . if you received a visit from a friend or relative on Three Kings' day, you are supposed to return the visit eight days later. Today most families choose this day to take off the Christmas decorations and "officially" end Christmas.


"Feliz Navidad" midi courtesy of Rene Ramos