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How to Celebrate Christmas in Puerto Rico

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Often called the “Island of Enchantment,” Puerto Rico is the perfect Caribbean destination for U.S. travelers for many reasons. First, there is the ease of travel; U.S. citizens do not need a passport to enter this U.S. Territory. Not only is this great for non-passport holders, but without customs and immigration travel is considerably less stressful. 

Puerto Rico is also the best of both worlds for U.S. travelers, in the sense that it has a healthy combination of U.S. amenities, stores and services, along with its own distinct culture and tropical exotic flavor. Spanish and English are both official languages (with English spoken by every single person I encountered), and the U.S. dollar is the local currency.

And if you love the Christmas season, it is big in Puerto Rico. I mean big. 85% of the population is Catholic, with another 8% Protestant, making the holiday itself important. Add to that Puerto Rico’s huge festival culture, and you have all the ingredients necessary for one of the best Christmas seasons in the world. The 500-year history of the Caribbean island has created a rich and diverse cultural heritage, which is celebrated in the many festivals held year-round. In fact, CNN and Forbes both named Puerto Rico among the world’s best Christmas vacation spots.

If you’re worried that it’s a bit late to get in on the festivities, fear not. Here, the 50 Days of Christmas begin the day after Thanksgiving, when people start placing Christmas adornments all over their homes, and continue all the way through January 15, with the last day of Las Octavitas. In fact, the biggest day of the season is January 6, El Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day—marking the day that the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem.

Veronica Taveira, Public Relations Manager for the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa in Rio Grande, says, “Christmas celebrations are such a big deal here because they are so different and most of all, really long! Puerto Ricans celebrate Christmas with great enthusiasm.”

Puerto Rico proudly celebrates each of the traditional feasts that take part during Christmas season. Parrandas, asaltos or trullas navideñas (the Puerto Rican version of the Christmas caroling), Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), Dí–a de Navidad (Christmas Day), Despedida de Año (New Year’s Eve), Dí–a de Año Nuevo (New Year’s Day), El Dí–a de los Reyes (Epiphany), and Las Octavitas (no English translation) are all traditionally celebrated on the island.

The Parrandas caroling goes on throughout the entire Christmas season. “The parranderos arrive at the destination with traditional instruments such as maracas, tamboras, güiros and guitars and very quietly gather by the front door,” explains Taveira. “At a signal all start playing their instruments and singing aguinaldos (traditional Christmas tunes). The parrandas usually begin after 10 p.m. in order to surprise and wake the sleeping friend. The parranderos are invited in and refreshments, music, and dance follow.” She adds that although there is an element of surprise to the visit, the parranderos like to drop little hints to the homeowners to clue them in that they are coming.

Some of the traditional foods served during a Puerto Rican Christmas are lechón asado (roasted pork), arróz con gandules (rice with peas), and pasteles. Another Christmas tradition is to serve coquito (Puerto Rican coconut eggnog). After dinner the dancing to salsa and merengue starts and the party goes on until sunrise.

At the Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, these foods and traditions are celebrated in style. In fact, one of the largest gingerbread houses in the world is constructed here each Christmas season by Aníbal Rodríguez, Executive Pastry Chef at the Wyndham hotel. Using nearly 2,000 pounds of flour, 11 cases of eggs and nearly 400 pounds each of butter and powdered sugar, it takes Rodríguez and his team 540 team member hours to put together and decorate the enormous gingerbread house, which is the size of a small room. Perhaps that is one reason why Rodríguez’s Puerto Rico Culinary Team has won 18 medals, including Best Culinary Team in the Caribbean. To read more about this fantastic gingerbread house, take a look at my colleague Christian Kallen’s article at the Huffington Post.

Despedida de Año is the biggest feast in Puerto Rico during Christmas season. On December 31st Puerto Ricans wake up to clean their houses, including their sidewalks, to await the New Year. It is believed that the houses will stay in the same condition as the New Year all throughout the coming year. Wearing brand new clothes is also a tradition. Groups of family and friends gather early in the evening awaiting the arrival of the New Year. Traditional foods and drinks are prepared for this big feast. Music can be heard everywhere.

As midnight approaches, people looking for those who are special to them and they want to receive the New Year with. Glasses are filled with champagne or cider and some get 12 grapes ready to be eaten each of the 12 seconds before midnight. It is believed that those who can eat all 12 grapes will receive great prosperity the coming year. At the stroke of midnight salutations are made, fireworks go off and the partying really begins. A popular custom is to throw a bucket of water out on the street to free the house of bad things and prepare to receive the good things that the New Year has to bring.

Here, as in much of the Latin world, Santa Claus is eschewed in favor of the Three Kings, who rule the yuletide. On the evening of January 5th, Puerto Rican children go outside with scissors and shoe boxes to cut grass for the camels of The Three Kings to eat. The grass goes into shoe boxes and the boxes are placed under the beds of parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts, etc. Some time during the night The Three Kings come and while their camels eat the grass, they fill the shoe boxes to overflow with gifts and sweets. The day is celebrated all over the island, but nowhere is it more exuberant than in the small town of Juana Diaz, whose Three Kings parade through the entire island.

Trading a Christmas tree for a palm tree has its benefits. And if you can’t make it to Puerto Rico before the Christmas festivities end on January 15, no worries. After all, this is Puerto Rico, where another party is always just around the corner.

Later in January, the San Sebastian Street Festival brings the cobblestones of Old San Juan to life in a vibrant street party. For more than 50 years, artists and crafters have exhibited their work as thousands of locals and tourists fill the streets to browse the vendors. Music and plenty of food round out the event, which is topped off with an energetic parade of people in costumes and masks.

The Ponce Carnival is Puerto Rico’s version of Mardi Gras, and one of the oldest festivals on the island, dating back to the 1700s. Over the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, this colorful celebration takes place, with costumed vejigantes taking to the streets with their vivid demon masks amid hordes of masked revelers and thumping bomba music. The Ponce Carnival ends on the eve of Ash Wednesday with the Entierro de la Sardina—the mock “Burial of the Sardine” funeral procession that is delightfully offbeat, led by drag queens and fake mourners. It’s all a great, oddball party.

The Casals Festival is held in late February through March, and is one of the world’s most prestigious festivals of classical music. Internationally-renowned artists converge for three weeks to bring a top-notch level of artistic offerings to Puerto Rico, including pianists, chamber musicians, violinists, and opera singers.

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