Christmas in Puerto Rico

A Long Christmas Season

Christmas decorations in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico

What is so special about Christmas in Puerto Rico? Everything.

There are many things I miss about Puerto Rico. Yes, I miss my homeland and I miss my family all year long. But even more so during Christmas.

They say Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Imagine if Christmas started with Thanksgiving and ended in February. What if instead of twelve days of Christmas there were two months of it?

If you like the idea of a longer Christmas season, you would love Puerto Rican Christmas.

As a mostly Catholic nation, Christmas remains a religious celebration.

For Catholics, Christmas does not end until the Sunday after the Epiphany (January 6th) which is traditionally the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist–incidentally the patron saint of Puerto Rico.

our traditional Christmas dinner: arroz con gandules, pernil (con cuerito), morcilla, pasteles. Pinterest

Except Puerto Ricans celebrate the Octavitas (the eight days after the Epiphany). This date usually runs into the San Sebastian Street Festival in  San Juan (Thursday to Sunday the week of January 20th).

Wow! Long enough for you? Since Puerto Ricans enjoy the Christmas season so much, it is no wonder they do not want it to end.

Actually, one of my biggest cultural shocks when I first came to Philadelphia was seeing people throwing their Christmas tree and taking off the decorations after December 26th or right after New Year’s Day. Christmas was not over yet.

Then again, when you are partying and eating pasteles, arroz con dulce, pernil, guineitos en escabeche, and drinking coquito, why would you be in a rush for Christmas to end?

What do our Christmas traditions say about us?

A Mixture of Traditions

Christmas decorations showcasing our heritage, Photo: Carlos Reyes

Anthropologists like to talk about diffusionism, syncretism, melting pots, and acculturation.

The way Puerto Ricans celebrate Christmas reflects the multiple ethnic groups and races that formed modern Puerto Ricans. I guess we like to add rather than exclude.

Puerto Ricans are a mixture of three races:

  • white (Spanish, Arab, Sephardic Jew, but also German, Irish, Italian, Corsican, French, Dutch, and Canary Islander mostly);
  • black (mostly West African Igbo, Ga, Yoruba, Fulani, and so many others),
  • and Amerindian (mostly Taíno).

Moreover, after 120 years of being a US colony, the US-American influence in our culture cannot be denied.

For example, we are probably the only place in Latin America that celebrates Santa Claus and Thanksgiving.

Fun fact: our first Christmas tree did not arrive with the Americans in 1898. Our first Christmas tree was brought from Germany to Bayamón by Boricua scientist Agustín Stahl in 1865, thirty-three years before the invasion.

Our Christmas celebrations are religious and secular affairs with roots in all three races which give us our collective ethnic identity

A costumed reveler during the Festival of San Sebastian in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is the main dinner/family gathering, usually followed by the ‘misa de gallo‘ (midnight mass).

Parrandas and aguinaldos are part of our traditions.

People get together and go from home to home singing Christmas-time songs using the guitar and cuatro (Spanish instruments), maracas and tambourines (African instruments), and the güiro and clave (Taíno instruments).

The aguinaldos are more religious in nature, like Christmas carols. But even those have a peculiar Boricua spin.

For instance, my favorite is the Aguinaldo Yaucano who sings about a poor jibarito (peasant) visiting the baby Jesus and offering coffee and vegetables.

A lot of our traditions follow the American ones. And despite the malls being full, our customs are more family-oriented and less commercial.

Christmas is a time to spend among family and neighbors, it is not so much about presents.

What Makes Puerto Rican Christmas Different?

Plaza de Juana Díaz’s Christmas decorations

Growing up in Puerto Rico what you saw on television did not match what you experience. People think of Christmas as cold winter, hats and scarfs, snow, reindeer, and snowmen.

Except Puerto Rico is a tropical island. December may be cooler than summer but expect about 86F degree weather. 

Instead of reindeer and camels, except Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men to arrive by horses. Rather than people wearing Santa hats, you may see people wearing the traditional pava.

Instead of snow, expect palm trees, sunshine, and the coquí song.

By the way, the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day is a big deal in my hometown of Juana Díaz.

On the whole island, children go on January 5th and put grass inside a shoebox and water for the Three Kings (Gaspar, Melchor, and Balthazar).

Puerto Rico Christmas decorations, Pinterest

Kind of like American kids leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Puerto Rican kids leave food for the camels. And when they wake up, presents are waiting for them under their bed or the tree.

I have good Christmas memories, from visiting family to going to mass wearing your best clothes. I remember papi driving us to rich people’s neighborhoods to see their Christmas lights and decorations.

Likewise, I also remember going to the ‘plaza pública‘ (town square) to see the decorations, eat ice cream, and just hang out. 

As I age, I miss more our traditions and appreciate them more than when we were younger. I trust my people living in the diaspora never forget our traditions.

I hope my people always embrace our Puerto Ricanness. Particularly at Christmas. Feliz Navidad!

Reader, what is your favorite Christmas memory?

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