A friend suggested I write about the holiday traditions I grew up with in Puerto Rico. So here you go!
Note: Links to recipes and music open up in new tab.
Music and Television:
I was familiar with American Christmas music because we had cable and watched a lot of American programming. However, the music I loved best during Christmas was the traditional aguinaldos. We’d have parrandas where people would play the Puerto Rican cuatro, drums, maracas, guitars and the güiro and visit their neighbors. This is similar to Chrismas Caroling.
I grew up listening to a lot of Salsa, particularly Hector Lavoe and Willie Colón (along with the rest of The Fania All-Stars) because mami was a huge fan of them. For Christmas she’d continuously play Asalto Navideño I and II. Every year, we’d decorate our tree and listen to Hector’s unique voice, the lights in the tree would sync up with the music. It was always so much fun.
Like I mentioned before, we had cable so we watched ABC’s 25 Days of Christmas. Mami grew up watching the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. She introduced us to Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and Frosty the Snowman. We also watched CBS’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. However, our favorite special was Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
Every time it came on we’d all sit around the TV and my grandma would make an egg yolk and sugar spread that we’d eat on crackers. We called the Grinch, El Pillo Verde, literally the green thief.
My favorite thing about the Puerto Rican holiday season is the food. We usually don’t have turkey but pernil (roast pork). My grandma would cook turkey on Thanksgiving though. One of my favorite memories from Thanksgiving was when my grandpa would carve the turkey because he’d sneak us pieces. Grandma would tell him not to because it would spoil our appetite but grandpa would keep doing it and would tell us in his heavily accented English “no listen to your mama. if you hungry you eat”.
Puerto Ricans are known for our rice and beans. But during Christmas we make arroz amarillo con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas). Along with that we have pasteles which are similar to tamales. I’m not a fan of them which is blasphemy to Puerto Ricans, but I was destined to be the black sheep, so here we are.
For dessert we have arroz con dulce (we really like our rice, that’s for sure). Arroz con dulce is rice pudding. Most recipes add raisins, but since I believe raisins are evil, I don’t add them to my recipe. We also make tembleque which is coconut pudding. From American television I learned people hate fruit cake. I’ll never understand why Americans have a dessert they hate. Our desserts are delicious!
Pernil (roast pork) is the shining jewel in our Puerto Rican Christmas dinner. The more cuero (fat) on it the better. Nothing reminds me more of Christmas in Puerto Rico than smelling pernil being prepared.
We have our version of eggnog, which we call coquito. It can be made without rum but we also like our liquor. I mean, we have a Christmas song that goes “si no me dan de beber, lloro” (if i’m not given something to drink, I’ll cry).
Los Tres Reyes Magos y Santa Clos:
Our tree went up after Thanksgiving and would stay up until January 6th.
This was because we also celebrated Three Kings’ Day. My younger brother and I would go out and look for grass to put in shoe boxes for the Magi’s horses. For Santa Clos (as we called him) we didn’t leave him milk and cookies. We left him chips and Pepsi. That wasn’t a Puerto Rican tradition. That was what our mother came up with since she dislikes milk and cookies. My wanting to leave Santa something else was what lead me to stop believing in Santa, but that’s another post for another day.
There was a parade every year either in town or close to the beach. People in the parade would hand out candy to the children, while The Three Wise Men waved to the children from up on their horses. We’d also put on a show in school. I was picked to be a pastorcita (shepherdess). I recited a poem where I offered a gift to El Niño Jesus (Baby Jesus). My aunt made me an outfit similar to this:
(image is of a little girl wearing a shepherdess outfit in red, black and white)
Old and New Traditions:
I’ve been living in the States for 12 years. I no longer celebrate Three Kings’ Day or Thanksgiving but I still celebrate Christmas. We lived in homeless shelters for a long time, so our Christmases were very humble. However, I tried my best to teach my daughter the holiday traditions I grew up with. I learned how to make the Christmas foods and coquito. This year I’m going to learn how to roast a pork. This is the first year I’ve had my own oven so I’m taking every opportunity to use my kitchen. This is our first year with a tree.
(image is of a decorated Christmas tree on a picture collage with different holiday stickers of wreaths, trees and ornaments)
We don’t have cable but we still watch the Christmas specials I grew up with.
(image: DVDs of Christmas specials, clockwise from left, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!)
We’d started our own traditions too. In the shelters we weren’t allowed to have trees, so we’d decorate as best we could. This year we do have a tree so we made several ornaments.
(image is of several handmade ornaments, made from wire, beads, paper and ribbons)
In Puerto Rico we’d put a manger under the tree. I even made one once in my Sunday school class.
(image: handmade manger scene, the tree has a white skirt with a winter scene on it, the floor is terrazzo tile)
I am an atheist now so instead my daughter and I decorated her doll house and put that under the tree.
(images are of a pink and purple doll house decorated with a small wreath and beads for lights)
This is the first holiday season where we won’t be homeless so it’s extra special. As I teach my daughter her heritage, we’ll also continue to make up our own.
I had a lot of fun writing this! Looking for links to songs and recipes I found stuff I had forgotten about. It brought a lot of memories. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did writing! ¡Felices Fiestas!