Puerto Rico takes pride in having the longest holiday season in the world.
On the Island, la Navidad lasts around 45 days, starting right after Thanksgiving Day in November, extending through mid-January, and culminating with the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, also known as la SanSe. Every year, Puerto Ricans get ready to celebrate their Christmas traditions and customs, from food to music and even décor.
Since the holiday season is not so much a sprint as it is a marathon, here are some traditions you should know to get in the spirit of the occasion:
A parranda or trulla is the boricua version of a Christmas Carol. Friends and families gather in front of a house – usually after 10:00 p.m. – with instruments like panderos, maracas, güiros, cuatros, and guitars to sing aguinaldos (traditional Christmas songs).
The idea is to surprise the household, so the parranderos round up as quietly as possible and then break into song with the intention of waking people up with joyful and jubilant music. It is a tradition for the household to offer refreshments and then join the group to bring the party to the next house. The last home is the longest stay and where the party usually ends when the sun rises.
Boricuas don’t fa la la la la, they le lo lai during Christmas time! Music is a key aspect of Navidad, and there are different types of songs played around the Island throughout the season. The most popular are aguinaldos (which literally means gift), folk-style songs that can be of secular or religious themes. Another prominent genre is villancicos, which are religious Christmas tunes that feature Catholic figures and that are derived from Spanish culture. Lastly, trovas is the art of song improvisation that will take you to yesteryear. It emerged from jíbaros (the ancient Puerto Rican farmer) who would play music and invent songs on the spot and, still to this day, trovadores delight crowds with their talent. Other genres of music, such as bomba and plena are also commonly sung by Puerto Ricans during the festive season.
For most Puerto Ricans, Christmas Eve or Nochebuena trumps Christmas Day. This is the night where family and friends gather for a traditional dinner, exchange gifts, go out on parrandas, or take a drive to enjoy the Christmas decorations around town.
Many Puerto Ricans will attend a midnight mass known as Misa de Gallo, where they welcome Christmas as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Some churches even reenact the Nativity scene.
The classic holiday menu consists of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), lechón asado (spit-roasted pork), and pasteles (tamale-like patties of green banana and meat). Side dishes might include potato salad, pasta salad, or morcilla (rice-stuffed blood sausages). The traditional Christmas dessert is tembleque, a coconut-based pudding topped with cinnamon.
Instead of eggnog, Puerto Rico has coquito a thick, creamy holiday drink made primarily with coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, rum, and spices. It is usually served chilled in shot glasses to beat the heat of the warm winter days. ¡Salud!
Puerto Ricans usually put up their Christmas trees and decorations by Thanksgiving and don’t take them down until mid-January, so the Island feels especially magical during the holiday season. With town squares and houses lit up with Santa Clauses and snowflakes as well as local designs like jibaritos, Puerto Rico turns into a tropical winter wonderland where every corner is a photo opportunity.
Three Kings Day
On January 6th, Puerto Rico celebrates el Día de Reyes or Epiphany, a commemoration of the visit the Three Wise Men made after Jesus was born. The night before, children around Puerto Rico go out to their backyards and gather grass or hay in shoeboxes and place them under their beds for the Magi’s camels or horses in exchange for presents. For over 135 years, the town of Juana Díaz has celebrated a festival and parade that gathers over 25,000 people for the occasion.
The eight days after Three Kings Day are known in Puerto Rico as las octavitas, an extension of Christmas were people keep throwing parties and going on parrandas. Originally, the octavitas were parties of a religious nature and were used to glorify the Magi and Jesus with songs. Usually, this period ends with Puerto Rico’s most vibrant and colorful festival: las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián or la SanSe. This music-filled cultural jubilee marks the official end of the holiday season.
New Year’s Eve Rituals
Partake in some of the most common rituals to welcome the Año Nuevo (New Year) like a Boricua. Puerto Ricans clean their homes to start the new year on a positive note since they believe that will be the condition that will prevail for the next 365 days. In some parts of the Island, people throw buckets out of their windows to drive away evil spirits away. Or even welcome the new year in your swimsuit! A popular custom, if you are celebrating near the beach, is dropping backwards into the waves as the clock strikes 12 to keep the bad spirits at bay. Another tradition, that originated in Spain, is to eat 12 grapes during the last 12 seconds of the ending year, and you must finish all of them by midnight.