The joy and beauty of Christmas celebrations around the world can be experienced through traditions handed down from generation to generation. As our major cities become more homogenized, we can lose sight of the true spirit of the season with the bombardment of commercialism on every street corner. However, when you escape to the rural areas, you can experience family and friend-focused local celebrations that embody the reasons we celebrate Christmas. The people of Puerto Rico celebrate the longest Christmas season in the world, spiced with lively gatherings, festive food, traditional music, and delightful libations.
Throughout the hills and valleys of central Puerto Rico, the preparation for the celebrations of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and the arrival of the Three Wise Men begin around October 1 (and as early as September 1 for some enthusiastic families). Homes are decorated, trees are decked out, lights are strung, and the seasonal festivities begin bringing friends and family together.
This exuberant celebration spills out from mountaintop homes and villages along the rivers as the town centers become alive with excited children awaiting the arrival of the Three Kings. In Puerto Rico, the Christmas celebration does not end until mid-January, a week or two after the arrival of the Three Kings. The festive decorations are packed away for 8 short months before they reappear heralding hope and joy when the long Christmas season begins again.
The information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
Everywhere you look, Christmas decorations adorn homes, yards, and public spaces. You will see an occasional Santa Claus, however, most of the decorations are focused on the arrival of the Three Kings. Families meticulously place time-honored statues on their front lawns, hang kitchy Three Kings cutouts peeking over eves, and erect over-the-top lighting displays for passersby to enjoy.
You will see lit trees, wreaths, lights, and packages interspersed with poinsettias, palms, and other tropical plants. However, the Three Kings proudly dominate the Christmas decorations throughout interior Puerto Rico.
Three Kings Day
January 6, Epiphany or El Dia de Reyes, is the day the Three Wise Men arrive bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. A Holy Day of Obligation in many countries, Epiphany is the most special day for Puerto Ricans during the Christmas season. The day is marked by parades and festivals dedicated to the Magi, gift giving, and large celebratory gatherings.
The night before Three Kings Day, excited children gather grass for the camels’ snack as they carry the Magi across the countryside. The grass and their wishlist are added to a shoebox and then placed under their bed for the Three Kings. In the morning, if their wishes are granted, the gifts magically appear under the Christmas Tree.
A parranda is when a group of holiday troubadours, similar to wandering Christmas carolers, visit their neighbors serenading them with music and aguinaldos (traditional Christmas songs). These wandering neighborhood minstrels appear late in the evening, typically after 10 p.m or even later, and perform a set or two of fun and lively Christmas folk songs.
Son del Campo, a local band in Cayey, Puerto Rico, had a pop-up performance at El Pretexto in honor of the Christmas season. Their surprise visit and melodious tunes delighted guests with their upbeat musical renditions. You have no choice but to stand, clap, and sway to the rhythmic beat hoping they will play longer before they move on to the next house.
After the performance, the recipient homeowner is expected to provide a feast for the musicians which typically includes a house-made libation called pitorro. This potent drink is traditionally flavored with coffee, coconut, ginger, and other local fruits.
The beautiful musical celebration of La Promesa (the promise) traditionally held on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany is a timeless tradition in Puerto Rico. The songs give praise, ask for miracles, and give thanks to the Three Kings and the Virgin Mary. The series of aguinaldos (carols) are sung by a cantor with responses from the attendees. These beautiful carols are a petition asking for the recovery of a loved one who is sick or to assist someone in a time of need and paired with a promise to serve God.
You can view a clip highlighting the moving musical tradition of La Promesa posted here by Go To Ciales. This performance is a collection of musicians from the countryside in Puerto Rico who came together for a night of lyrical songs, amazing food, fun libations, and good friends at Casa Vieja in the mountains of Ciales.
Late Night Dinners
When the Christmas celebrations draw to a close in the wee hours of the morning, Puerto Rico’s signature dish, Asopao (chicken and rice stew) is dished into bowls and served to family and friends as a parting meal before they venture out into the night on their way home.
This hearty and healthful stew is a welcome year-round dish. You will find it on many restaurant menus, like the beautifully authentic version from Abolengo pictured above. You can make your own version of Asopao starting with this classic recipe.
The centerpiece of a traditional Puerto Rican holiday feast begins with Lechon Asado, the most perfectly spit-roasted suckling pig complete with a lacquered skin that is crunchy and sweet. Traditionally served with the tender roasted star of the meal are Arroz con Gandules (rice with pigeon peas), Pasteles (tamale-like patties of green banana and meat), Morcilla (rice-stuffed blood sausages), fresh salad, and Coquito (spiked coconut libation).
Christmas food creates family memories that transcend generations, linking them together with a common bond. Loving abuelas (grandmothers), the gatekeepers of family recipes, are the key to retaining Christmas traditions not only in Puerto Rico but around the globe. Christmas feasts celebrate not only the holiday season but the harvest of a year of hard work. It is a time to share your good fortune with the people you love and cherish.
Coquito (small coconut) is a sweet, coconut, and rum-flavored holiday beverage traditionally served at parties during the Christmas season. It is lighter than eggnog, although it can pack a potent punch. Many tried and true family recipes substitute the rum for a homemade libation, Pitorro. This authentic version delivers quite a kick, relaxing everyone into the joyous holiday spirit. The version you see in the photo is a specialty of the house at Hacienda Negron, a family resort in the mountains of Ciales, Puerto Rico.
Every family has its own special recipe, but you can make your own Coquito by using this recipe and a few simple ingredients found in most pantries. It will bring a fun island twist to your Christmas festivities.
If you are not able to visit Puerto Rico this year to celebrate the longest Christmas season in the world, you can bring a little of the island holiday spirit to your own festivities. Take time after the rush of Christmas day to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings. With beautiful Puerto Rican music, a homemade batch of Coquito, and heaping bowls of delicious Asopao you can transport your guests to the island of Puerto Rico. You will find yourself dreaming of visiting this lovely island paradise.
When you do have a chance to visit Puerto Rico, you can find all the information to plan your perfect visit at Discover Puerto Rico. From the beautiful sandy beaches to the lush verdant mountains, Puerto Rico’s gorgeous sunshine and beautiful vistas are perfect for a getaway any time of year.
Whenever you’re in the mood for an island vacation, check out all that Puerto Rico has to offer: