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Puerto Rican Holiday Traditions
December 10, 2000
Holidays no doubt are the most anticipated time of the year in Puerto Rico. Many of the customs, such as Noche Buena, Navidad, Año Viejo, and Three Kings Day, are celebrated with great enthusiasm. Below are brief descriptions of the principal holiday traditions celebrated in Puerto Rico.
Even before December arrives, the chords of cuatros and guitars, accompanied by guiros and maracas, can be heard playing the traditional tune of an "aguinaldo" or "villancico" (Christmas song). Parrandas, also known as "asaltos" or "trullas," are the Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling. Friends gather late in the evening and go from house to house singing traditional holiday songs. The parranderos (carolers) generally are invited in by the homeowner and, in anticipation of their visit, the host offers them food and drinks. The parranda then continues on to the next house with the host usually joining in. Parrandas generally last till mid-January.
Misas de aguinaldos
For the nine days before Christmas Eve, the Catholic Church celebrates the season with a traditional "misa de aguinaldo." The masses normally are held at dawn and are characterized by the singing of traditional Christmas songs accompanied by typical instruments such as el cuatro, el güro, and las maracas. After the mass, there is a get-together where participants partake of typical dishes, sweets, coffee, and such.
On Dec. 24, it is customary for family and friends to get together to celebrate Christmas Eve. Lechón asado, arroz con gandules, pasteles, morcillas, tembleque, and arroz con dulce are a few of the holiday food favorites that are a staple of the Nochebuena celebration. After the holiday feast, a lot of Catholic families attend a special Christmas Eve mass called "Misa de Gallo," also known as midnight mass. Misa de Gallo is a solemn yet festive mass that celebrates the birth of Jesus. In some churches, members create a live nativity scene, dressing up as the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and the three wise men.
Indisputably, Año Viejo (New Year's Eve) is the holiday with the most noise and bustle in Puerto Rico. Friends and family gather to await the arrival of the New Year and say good-bye to the old. The celebration begins early in the evening with a lot of drinking and eating of traditional foods. Many choose to dress in brand-new clothing so they can receive the New Year with new things.
Although the government has outlawed pyrotechnics, you can hear plenty of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and cherry bombs exploding all night long and, as midnight draws closer, everyone gathers in anticipation of the new year. When the clock strikes 12, all you hear are fireworks, horns, cheers, and cries of joy as everyone hugs and kisses one another, wishing each other "Feliz Año Nuevo!"
After saying good-bye to the old year, a lot of Puerto Ricans do one of many rituals to receive the New Year. Eating 12 grapes at midnight is a custom that comes from Spain. It is said to bring lots of prosperity to those who do it. Another one is to throw a bucket of water out into the street to rid the home of all the bad things and prepare it for the arrival of all the good things. Another ritual is throwing sugar around the outside of the home to attract good luck and ward off bad luck.
On Dec. 28, Puerto Ricans celebrate la fiesta de los Santos Inocentes in commemoration of the day Herod's evil soldiers were sent to kill the first-born boys (age 0-2 years) from every family. Fearing the newborn Messiah would take over his throne, the emperor wanted the Messiah dead. Children usually dress up as soldiers and play lots of practical jokes on each another, such as stealing food and children. This custom isn't celebrated as much anymore, but the small town of Hatillo continues the tradition with a parade and a party in the municipal square.
In the center of a small hand-made altar constructed of branches and decorated with flowers, the image of a saint is hung. The tradition of Velorios cantados usually is practiced to fulfill a religious promise. The saints to which velorios cantados are most frequently dedicated are La Virgen del Carmen, San Antonio de Padua, and the Three Kings. Part of the tradition is to sing the entire rosary and, at the end of the Velorio, attendees drink coffee and eat bread.
Tres Reyes Magos
On the eve of Jan. 6, children pick grass and put it in a box to leave at the foot of the bed for the Three Kings' hungry camels. Early the next morning, they awake to see what gifts the Three Kings, Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar, have left them. For the month leading up to "el Día de los Reyes," the Three Kings of Juana Diaz go from town to town and participate in the Catholic masses. They prepare spiritually for this role months in advance.
According to tradition, if you receive a visit from a relative or friend on Three Kings' Day, you are supposed to return the visit eight days later. This tradition isn't practiced as much. Some families choose this day to take down Christmas decorations and officially end the holiday season.