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.