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Puerto Rico: Christmas Celebrations


This article is from the Puerto Rico FAQ, by Zeydy Ortiz Laureano zortizl@eos.ncsu.edu with numerous contributions by others.

Puerto Rico: Christmas Celebrations

In Puerto Rico, as well as most of Latin America, Christmas traditions
have their roots in Catholicism. Due to contact with other cultures,
some of these traditions have evolved and changed through time. Some
customs have lost their religious meaning and become secular events
where everybody, regardless of religious affiliation, participate.

Here is the calendar of celebrations for the Christmas holidays in
Puerto Rico.

MISAS DE AGUINALDO [Nine consecutive nights before Christmas Eve]
- In the Catholic tradition these masses are celebrated with music
and carols. They are celebrated at dawn (between 5:00 and 6:00am)
during nine days before Christmas Eve.
- The favorite music instruments to use during these masses, and
throughout the season, are: "el cuatro" (a small guitar); the
guitar; "el gu:iro" (a hollow wood shell made from the skin of a
fruit called "higuera"); and "maracas" (made from the same fruit
as the "gui:ro", but smaller and round).
- These masses originated in Mexico and Central America, to motivate
the Native Americans to join Christianity. Native Americans in
Mexico used to celebrate the birth of their Sun God during
December, with music and dancing. Catholic missionaries
incorporated these custom to their masses to make them more
appealing to the Natives and facilitate the transition from one
faith to another.
- From Mexico, this custom spread to the Caribbean. It is unknown in
South America and Spain.

MISA DE GALLO [December 24 at midnight]
- In the Catholic Church, this mass is celebrated on December 24 at
midnight. Its purpose is to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Like in
the "Aguinaldo" mass, there is music and singing, but the
atmosphere is more solemn.

NOCHEBUENA [Christmas Eve - December 24]
- A special dinner or party is organized by many families to
celebrate the birthday of Jesus at home.
- The menu varies from one family to another, but it usually
includes a special dish, like baked chicken or turkey, and roasted
pork or ham.
- The main dish is accompanied by Spanish rice with pigeon peas,
local vegetables like cooked green bananas, fried plantains or
cooked yam. Another Holiday dish is called "pasteles". It's made
of mashed green bananas, filled with meat and other vegetables,
wrapped in the leaves of the banana tree (the leaves are only for
wrapping, we don't eat them). They are cooked in boiling water.
- We also have Holiday desserts like: "arroz con dulce" (rice cooked
with spices, sugar, milk, and coconut milk) and "tembleque" (a
custard made with cornstarch, sugar, and coconut milk). They
taste better cool down or cold, when its consistency becomes more
- The nougat, imported from Spain, is another popular sweet dish
during the Holidays. Nuts are also popular.

NAVIDAD [Christmas - December 25]
- Christians celebrate Jesus' birthday.
- Santa Claus brings gifts to the children who had been good during
the year. This custom originated in the USA, but since the 1940's
has become part of Puerto Rico's Holiday traditions. In other
Spanish-speaking countries like Spain and Mexico is also becoming
- The Christmas tree is another custom imported from the USA. We
decorate a pine tree (natural or artificial) with lights and
adornments. The houses are also decorated with lights.
- People build "nacimientos" (also called "Belens" or "pesebres",
known in English as cribs or creches). These cribs recreate the
story of Jesus' birth. They are made with scale figures made of
wood, plastic or porcelain. The complexity of the crib varies
from one place to another. Some are simple, with the figures of
Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. Others include the three Wise Men,
shepherds, animals, buildings, etc. In some Catholic churches,
large and elaborate cribs are built as altars for people to visit
them on Christmas Eve.

DIA DE LOS INOCENTES [Day of the Innocents - December 28]
- During this day, Catholics remember the children killed by Herod,
as it is told in the Gospel.
- People used to celebrate this day like a carnival, where some men
dressed as the "evil soldiers of Herod", and went house by house,
"kidnapping" the first-born boy from every family. To recover
their children, the families had to offer the soldiers gifts, and
when the children returned to their homes, a big party was
organized to celebrate the return of the "lost boys".
- In Puerto Rico, this carnival still takes place in one small town
called Hatillo. The whole town joins in the parade and later on
in a big party at the public square. In another town called
Morovis, a similar event takes place, but in a smaller scale.
This carnival originated in the Canaries isles, and were brought
to Puerto Rico by immigrants from that place.
- Today, this day is celebrated in a different way. People make
tricks and stories to fool others, resembling the April Fool's
Day in the USA.

A~NO VIEJO [New Year's Eve - December 31]
- People celebrate the end of the year with relatives and friends,
or going out. The end of year is a symbol of a new beginning,
when people make changes to improve their lives. The major event
occurs at midnight, when everybody greets each other and wishes
good luck and happiness to everyone.
- Some people eat 12 grapes, one for every time the clock rings its
bells to tell time. It is supposed to bring good luck if you can
eat all 12 grapes before the clock stops ringing the bells. Of
course, not everybody have wall clocks with ringing bells, so the
custom varies.
- In Puerto Rico, right at midnight, TV and radio stations broadcast
a famous poem called "El Brindis del Bohemio", which tells the
story of a group of friends together in a bar celebrating the New
- The celebration continues all night long.

VISPERA DE EPIFANIA [Epiphany's Eve - January 5]
- Catholics meet in a neighbor's house to pray the rosary and to
honor the three Wise Men (saints in the Catholic faith). This
custom is almost forgotten by the younger generations.
- The children get ready to receive gifts from the three Wise Men by
collecting fresh cut grass in a shoe box. The grass is for the
Wise Men's camels, who are tired and hungry from their long
journey. Some people also put pastries, food and drinks for the
Wise Men under the Christmas tree or along with the grass under
the children's bed.

DIA DE REYES [Three Kings' Day or Epiphany - January 6]
- The children get to open the gifts left the night before by the
three Wise Men (or Kings).
- A party similar to the one celebrated in Christmas day is organized
by the family, with the same Holiday menu and music.
- The Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus' birthday on this day.

- According to tradition, if you received a visit from a friend or
relative on Three Kings' day, you are supposed to return the
visit eight days later, playing live music and singing songs. The
name "Octavas" comes from the word "octavo" (eighth), since the
event takes place eight days after January 6.
- People still remember this tradition, but is not practiced as
much. Some families choose this day to take off the Christmas
decorations and "officially" end Christmas.

Contributions: Jimmy Gonzalez Luna <ai282@freenet.carleton.ca> from
- Kennedy, Pamela, "A Christmas Celebration: Traditions & Customs from
Around the World". Nashville: Ideals Publishing Corp., 1992.
- Ross & Lopez, "Christmas In Mexico". Chicago: World Books Inc., 1983.
- Sosa de Remy, Jennie, "Etiqueta & Tradiciones Puertoriquen~as".
San Juan: Art Printing Inc., 1980.
San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorrique~na, 1980.


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