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 guiro” (a hollow wood shell made from the skin of a fruit called “higuera”); and “maracas” (made from the same fruit as the “guiro”, 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 onefaith 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 solid.
- 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 popular.
- 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.
ANO 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 Year.
- 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.
OCTAVAS & OCTAVITAS (January 15)
- 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.