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Holiday Traditions Puerto Rico

As a child the night before Three Kings’ Day, I went out into the field, clipped the greenest leaves of grass, put them inside a shoe box, and then placed the box by my bed so that the horses transporting the Three Kings would have food once they entered the house. The north american counterpart tradition is to leave milk and cookies for Santa. But by late afternoon of December 25th Santa is on his way back to the North Pole while in Latin America and Spain, millions of children still await “el día de los Reyes Magos”. This is the day children traditionally receive holiday presents in Latin America. For many Christians around the world the holiday season doesn’t officially end until the 12th day of Christmas, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day. The holiday falls on January 6th and marks the adoration of the baby Jesus by the Three Kings.

In Vieques, Three Kings’ Day is an integral part of our annual Christmas holidays.  During the holidays, families, neighbors and sometimes entire towns come together to celebrate our traditions.  In addition to Three Kings’ Day here is a list of some of the things that make our holiday festivities in Puerto Rico one of the wonders of the cultural and culinary world!

  1. Food: Pasteles (Puertorican tamales) served with arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas); Lechón (roasted pig) cooked in a back yard fire pit seasoned to perfection; Tembléque (coconut custard) for dessert. A staple of the season is Turron, a confection made of honey, sugar, egg whites and toasted almonds.

  2. Drink: Coquito, our traditional homemade version of eggnog combines coconut, rum and spices. For the fearless, there is Agua Ardiente and Pitorro.  These are extremely strong libations and not recommended for the lightweight.

  3. Music: The holidays are a time of celebration and music. Our very own cultural tradition is the Parranda.  A Parranda is an un-announced serenade that aims to wake up the recipients (and their immediate neighbors).  The recipient of a Parranda is expected to open his/her house, offer holiday food and drink to the parranderos and join the Parranda on the next stop.  Many parrandas last into the next morning.  The last Parranda of the night ends with an asopao (a chicken stew) expected to be prepared by the last host on the Parranda list.

  4. Musical instruments: string instruments such as the guitar and the Cuatro are a staple of our holiday music. The Cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments. A cuatro player is called a cuatrista. In addition, percussion instruments are key to the tempo and rhythm of our music.  The two most significant percussion instruments are the Guiro and the Palitos.  The Guiro is an instrument consisting of a hollow gourd with parallel notches cut in one side. The Guiro is played by rubbing a fork like gadget along the notches. The Palitos, two cylindrical hardwood sticks played by hitting one against the other, are Puertorican instruments that set rhythm.

  5. “Noche Buena”—Christmas eve is a night when families get together to eat traditional food, celebrate, tell stories, sing, dance and wait for Christmas. Devout Catholics still attend midnight mass.

  6. “Despedida de año”—New Year’s Eve is usually celebrated in the town plaza with music and dance from early evening until midnight and beyond! At midnight, Puertoricans say good bye to the old year by throwing a bucket of water outside their door. The New Year is welcomed with a display of fireworks!

  7. “Las octavitas”—We celebrate the holidays a little longer than most. We add 8 more days after Three Kings’ Day.

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