Navidad en Puerto Rico (Christmas in Puerto Rico)

Let me be blunt: I will not call this the “holiday season” because in Puerto Rico this is Navidad. Although the word does come from the Latin nativitas (nativity) and, yes, it all started with the birth of Jesus, the truth is that in Puerto Rico Navidad really means that the party starts in November right after Thanksgiving, and ends in January, right after the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, more recently known as la SanSe And it doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, Protestant, Baha’i, Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic… Navidad in Puerto Rico is for everyone!

Puerto Rico was colonized by the Europeans starting in 1493. Spain got here first, and although the British, French, and Dutch tried their best to take over the Island, in the end Spain won out, and so, Puerto Rico is an Island where Spanish is spoken and many Spanish cultural traditions remain. One of them is Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, January 6, when the Three Wise Men are believed to have visited baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh “on the 12th day of Christmas.” On the eve of Three Kings Day, or Día de Reyes, children gather grass in shoeboxes for the Three Kings to feed their camels as they stop to leave gifts in each home. It is common to stage a Nativity scene in schools—mostly with younger kids who are still willing to dress up and have fun with it—during a gathering of parents around Christmas time, and since leading roles are very limited, almost everyone ends up dressed as a shepherd (pastorcito), or what someone at some point thought shepherds should look like in a school play!

In the late 19th century (1898 to be exact) U.S. troops landed on our Island’s south shores and claimed their booty after beating Spain in the Spanish-American War. So we added Santa Claus and his reindeers to our Christmas traditions. Children in Puerto Rico get presents on December 25, Christmas Day, and January 6! We also love to put up Christmas trees inside the house and little lights outside that brighten up the whole street.

Then we have octavas and octavitas, eight days after Epiphany and then eight more (for a total of 16) days of festivities everywhere you go. Decorations stay up way past New Year’s, as does the “Christmas Spirit”.  Very few people work the day before Christmas, the day before New Year, and the day before Three Kings Day… and everything except businesses in the tourist area will be closed on those three days.

Our Navidad is a lot about the music and the food, too. While we do sing villancicos that have been passed on from generation to generation starting with those who came directly from Spain, our typical Christmas music is a mix of the indigenous and African cultures together with the Europeans’, which evolved into our very own rhythms and sounds. Strings and percussions lead the voices in traditional parrandas, where friends gather in one place and then go from one friend’s house to another with a “portable party,” singing aguinaldos navideños that are upbeat and may even include some off-color lyrics every so often.

Surprising someone at home with a parranda–a group of friends with any number of musical instruments (real or improvised) singing at the top of their lungs to wake everyone up (neighbors included)–is also known as an “asalto”, literally a “hold up.” The truth is that every home is supposed to be prepared for these “surprises” and have plenty of snacks, rum, and if you happen to be the last house to get the parranda or asalto, you should also be ready to cook an asopao, which is intended to help all the partygoers recover from all the drinking.

If you live in the center of the Island, a parranda may also involve a cabalgata, riding on horseback from house to house instead of driving a car or a truck. Mind you, the music can pop up at any time during this season, but it is especially important to have it on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Three Kings’ Day.

Our traditional Christmas foods include pasteles (a distant cousin of the tamal), lechón asa’o (roasted pig… sorry!), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas… it really tastes a lot better than it sounds in English), and desserts made with coconut, as well as the traditional coquito, a rum drink that, believe me, is not at all like the American egg nog!

Gift-giving is one part of all this celebration, as are religious ceremonies like Misas de Aguinaldos and Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve, but Navidad is a lot more than a religious festivity in Puerto Rico. It is a time to let go of the day to day worries and have a little fun for a change. It is also a time to let your friends and family (real or “extended”, which can include just about anyone you want to include) know how much you love them, and how important they are in your life. And it is in this spirit that I wish you all ¡una Feliz Navidad y un Próspero Año Nuevo!



4 thoughts on “Navidad en Puerto Rico (Christmas in Puerto Rico)”

  1. Thank you for sharing some of our culture, Janis. Reading about my beloved Puerto Rico, the place of my birth, brought tears to my eyes and a warm feeling all over. While we celebrate Christmas as they do in the U.S., most families in Puerto still wait for the Three Kings Holiday on January 6 to exchange gifts. I will never forget going to get grass for the camels with my grandfather. We would leave water and little bunches of grass under the tree with the hope that they would not miss our house. Those were magical days!

  2. Maria Ceballos says:

    Felicidades Janis! and thank you for capturing the spirit of our holiday season. One of my favorite parts of this season is the tradition where children go to receive a free gift from the 3 Wise Men on January 6th in the center of many municipalities and especially the capital, San Juan. oh… and cleaning up after those messy camels. During this season it’s wonderful to share our traditions and lean from those celebrated by others.

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Did you click on the links and hear the music?

    I wanted to bring across at least some general idea of our festivities this time of the year so your comments, Francesca and María, make me think that I did.

    My camels never got water, Francesca (poor babies!) because camels were supposed to be able to go for a long time without it, hahaha! And the mess, María, yes! Those trails of grass left by the camels while eating! I had forgotten about that. LOL

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my little piece on Puerto Rico’s holiday traditions.

    1. Leonor Figueroa-Feher says:

      Thank you, Janis, and ¡muchas felicidades!

      It’s refreshing to assert the right to treat festivities for what they should be: moments to celebrate together, to connect regardless of differences and to remind ourselves of what matters most in life.

      Hope you are enjoying las Navidades and ready for Reyes, Octavitas, San Sebastián … ( :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *