Navidad Puertorriqueña (Puerto Rican Christmas)
Christmas.com mentions a San José (Saint Joseph) Church at La Navidad with an animated Nacimiento (Nativity scene) which is visited by crowds of children. According to a book I read, this church is located in the Dominican Republic just west of Puerto Rico. Having lived in Puerto Rico for 25 years, I do not recall hearing about local children traveling to the Dominican Republic to visit the church as the book states, and neither do I recall the observance of January 12 as Bethlehem Day according to Christmas.com; the latter could be an old custom that is not observed in recent times. The trullas mentioned in the island’s overview are small bands of carolers whose modus operandi, so to speak, consists of arriving unannounced at the home of a person known to them and singing Christmas songs at the doorstep to the sound of different string and percussion instruments (the term parranda is used to denote the merrymaking associated with trullas). This song-filled asalto or crashing of the acquaintance’s home usually takes place very late at night. The members of the trulla continue singing and playing until their prospective host lets them in for drinks and refreshments.
For several days before Christmas, Catholic churches throughout the island celebrate a special Mass before sunrise known as Misa de Aguinaldo (the aguinaldo being a type of Puerto Rican Christmas carol). These liturgical services reach their climax on Nochebuena (literally, “Good Night” or Christmas Eve) with the celebration of Midnight Mass, commonly known as Misa de Gallo (Rooster Mass) after the ancient tradition of celebrating the Mass of the Nativity at the time the rooster crows. As in other countries, Puerto Ricans observe Christmas Day by exchanging gifts, visiting friends and relatives, and feasting.
December 28 marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the calendar of the Catholic Church. This feast commemorates the mass slaying of male children in Bethlehem following the birth of Christ. As the Gospel account goes, King Herod of Judea was not pleased to find out that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (whom he regarded as a threat to his own throne) may have already been born in Bethlehem as Hebrew prophets had foretold; therefore, he ordered that all male children 2 years of age and under living in the town be put to death. Of course, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt thwarted Herod’s plans to eliminate the real Messiah. Catholics honor these slain children as martyrs in Heaven.
Given the date of its celebration, Holy Innocents’ Day falls right in the middle of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico. While the day recalls a tragic event in Bible history, Puerto Ricans may observe it by playing practical jokes on those who are inocentes (“innocents” or naïve) just as Americans do on April Fools’ Day (as with many Christmas customs in the island, the prank-playing associated with Holy Innocents’ Day is of Spanish origin). The northern coastal town of Hatillo is known for celebrating the day with some revelry.
El Brindis del Bohemio (“The Toast of the Bohemian”) is a Spanish-language poem popular in Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America that is traditionally recited after midnight on El Día de Año Viejo (that is, “Old Year’s Day” or New Year’s Eve) just like “Auld Lang Syne” is played or sung in English-speaking countries after the clock strikes twelve. As the poem goes, a group of bohemian friends have met in a bar to welcome the New Year, each contributing between toasts a lighthearted anecdote on his experiences during the past year. One of the characters, however, reserves his toast to the memory of his late mother, much to the surprise of his fellow bohemians who then share in the sadness behind their friend’s toast. Well-known entertainers in Puerto Rico will usually recite the poem on the radio or dramatize it on television.
Children in Puerto Rico acknowledge both Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings, as they are better known locally) as holiday giftgivers, but there has been an increased emphasis in the last several years on celebrating the coming of the Three Kings given the island’s Spanish heritage. On the evening of January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, children leave grass and water for the Wise Men’s camels in expectation of their arrival with gifts (curiously, wooden figures carved by local artisans show the Magi riding on horses instead of camels). The Feast of the Epiphany (Día de Reyes or “Kings’ Day”) on January 6 marks a festive end to the Christmas season in Puerto Rico (although some Puerto Ricans may still observe the traditional Octavitas, which is an eight-day period of continuing Christmas celebrations after the Epiphany); on this day, the Governor’s Mansion in the capital of San Juan is opened to large crowds of wellwishers who are treated to toys, refreshments, and musical entertainment.
Unlike the traditional American Christmas dinner of turkey or ham with all the trimmings, Puerto Rican holiday food is quite different. The main dishes served during the Christmas season include lechón asado (roast pig), arroz con gandules (rice cooked with pigeon peas), and pasteles (these are a rectangular-shaped type of croquette or pie which is wrapped in plantain leaves, tied with string, and boiled; the main ingredient may be yellow rice, mashed cassava, or mashed plantain with fillings of ground or shredded meat, chick peas, olives, and raisins). Coquito (Puerto Rico’s counterpart to the American eggnog) is, in its most basic recipe, a blend of evaporated milk, cream of coconut, white rum, vanilla extract, and ground cinnamon (other recipes may ask to add condensed milk and raw eggs as well). A typical Christmas dessert in Puerto Rico may include tembleque (a firm coconut pudding) or arroz con dulce (white rice cooked with coconut milk and raisins); both are usually topped with ground cinnamon. Other foods popular in the island during the Christmas season include turrón (a hard white nougat with almonds imported from Spain), apple cider (also a Spanish import), nuts, and assorted candies.
In Puerto Rico, there are basically two kinds of local Christmas carols: the villancico and the aguinaldo. The villancico, which originated in Spain, is a religious ballad whose theme is related to the Nativity, such as the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the adoration of the Christ Child by the shepherds, or the coming of the Three Wise Men. The aguinaldo, on the other hand, is mainly secular and more spirited. In the more traditional, folkloric aguinaldos, we are told of visiting and bringing flowers to friends, sending greetings of the season, singing, feasting, and falling in love during Christmas. One well-known religious aguinaldo, Dios Bendiga el Santo Nombre de Jesús (“God Bless the Holy Name of Jesus”), tells the story of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion, yet it is actually played and sung during Christmas. Humorous aguinaldos remind us, for instance, of the poor pig which became Christmas dinner or of how much the singer will cry if he is not given a drink. Some of the newer aguinaldos may not necessarily have a Christmas theme, yet their folksy, tierra adentro (deep-country) style and their release over the airwaves during Christmastime make them instant holiday favorites for the coming years. (The term aguinaldo is also used in Puerto Rico to describe a small Christmas gift (usually cash or liquor) given to service providers such as mail carriers or trash collectors.)
Aside from the two genres discussed above, popular-music artists and composers in Puerto Rico have contributed their share of Christmas songs. One example is the classic Qué Triste Navidad (“What a Sad Christmas”) by the late Rafael Hernández, which brings to mind a lost love during the holiday season, much like the song “Blue Christmas” in the United States. Puerto Ricans also enjoy Christmas songs popular in America which have been translated into Spanish, such as Noche de Paz (“Silent Night”), Blanca Navidad (“White Christmas”), Cascabel (“Jingle Bells”), and El Tamborilero (“The Little Drummer Boy”).
Although Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, Spanish is the dominant language. Therefore, the main Christmas greetings are Feliz Navidad, Felices Pascuas, and Felicidades.