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The Puerto Rican holiday season begins in Novermber at Thanksgiving and keeps going through to the end of January. It is often noted that the Puerto Rican view of the Christmas season is that it’s not so much a sprint as it is a marathon. Indeed, children on the island have a winter break of about a month and the rush of business slows as family and friends gather to celebrate. You will also find many festivals and events that operate during this time. There are several favorite traditions though that are easy to follow…
Go to Mass – Misa de Aguinaldo
From December 15-24, churches conduct misas de aguinaldo, masses held at dawn featuring the singing of aguinaldos, which are Puerto Rican versions of Christmas Carols.
Go Carroling in a Parranda
A small group of people (parranderos) get the party started by surprising a friend at their house with music from Puerto Rico. Once the musicians have congregated on someone’s porch, they begin an as alto navideno, or a Christmas assault. This song awakens and greets the homeowner who must come to the door and let the musicians in. The musicians squeeze into the house and continue to perform aguinaldos. They usually get started after 10pm so that one is awoken in surprise. Then, as a group, they continue to the next house. Each house visit grows bigger through the night as more neighbors join in. The parrenderos are usually plied with drinks and food, and perhaps a little homemade Coquito (Puerto Rico’s version of eggnog) and then on to the next house. Usually, things wrap up around daybreak, with the last house usually providing something heartier like an asapao, or stew..
Christmas Eve trumps Christmas Day for most Puerto Ricans. This is when a typical Puerto Rican Christmas dinner is served, consisting of lechón (roast pork), pasteles (patties), and arroz con gandules (rice ‘n beans). The traditional Christmas dessert is tembleque, which is a kind of custard with coconut, cornstarch, vanilla, and cinnamon. After dinner, many Puerto Ricans attend a midnight mass known as the Misa de Gallo or “Rooster’s Mass.” You might just catch a live reenactment of the nativity scene.
Grapes for Good Luck
Fireworks have become a traditional event for New Year’s Eve and if you have view from a mountain, you will see a steady succession of fireworks once the sun goes down. At the stroke of midnight, local tradition demands that you eat 12 grapes for luck. You’ll also find some people sprinkling sugar outside their house for good luck or throwing a bucket of water out the window to expel all the negatives of the old year and get ready for a fresh start.
Collect Grass for the Camels
On the evening of Jan. 5, children will collect a shoebox full of grass and a large container of water for the Magi’s camels and place the items at the foot of their beds. In the night, the three kings will come into their rooms, take their supplies and leave a present under each child’s bed. In our family celebrations, the gifts given are generally small tokens that would fit into the shoebox.
Celebrate Three Kings Day
This day celebrates the feast of the Epiphany, when the Three kings visited the newly born Christ Child in Bethlehem bearing him gifts. This tradition is repeated and reflected in present day with the belief that on this eve the Three Kings will visit every good child to deliver them gifts.
There is not much known about the original Three Kings other than that they came from the East bearing the three traditional gifts of Frankincense, Myrrh, and Gold. On the night Christ was born, the were drawn by a “mysterious light” which became a star that hung in the western sky. The followed this sign to Bethlehem, where they arrived (a little late) to honor Christ’s birth. In fact, the “12 Days of Christmas,” which is so often believed to end on December 25, actually begins on the 25th and runs through January 6, culminating with the Feast of Epiphany, or “The Adoration of the Magi.” This marks the official end of the Christmas Season in Puerto Rico and there is a large celebration in San Juan, where children can go to La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion, to receive free gifts.
Drink Coquito or Pitorro
Christmas is not Christmas without Coquito, Puerto Rico’s version of Eggnog, but without the egg-y flavor. If you are looking for a traditional holiday drink and are not a fan of eggnog, consider coquito, a coconut based ‘eggnog’. Coquito is made with egg yolks, rum, coconut milk, coconut cream, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. The drink is commonly associated with the Christmas holidays, where it is traditionally served along with other holiday food.
Pitorro is Puerto Rico’s version of Moonshine, and not something that you will easily find. If at all, the best time to find this is during the holiday season by hanging out with some locals. Pitorro is moonshine, or in this case fermented sugar cane or Caña, that has had fruits and spices added to it and then has been cured for months in a dark storage area. Christmastime is the traditional time for Pitorro bottles to be taken out and dusted off and compared to everyone elses. In the last year or so, there have been a couple of distillers that have brought Pitorro to the public commercially. They artisan and offer many unique flavors and are available in-store at Caribbean Trading Company.
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