While many around the world are putting away their Christmas decorations for the holiday season, Puerto Ricans are still adding presents under their trees in preparation for the upcoming festivities. A big part of the reason the Island’s celebrations are so long is the customs adopted from Spanish colonization.
As an Island that continues to uphold traditions that started centuries ago, the party continues well into January as Three Kings Day and Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián are anxiously awaited.
Three Kings Day
Puerto Rico joins the list of select countries that celebrate this holiday every January 6th. Currently, it is primarily observed in regions of Europe and Latin America. El día de Los Reyes commemorates the glorification of baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. It’s been an integral part of the culture since Spain colonized Borínquen in 1492. The figure and concept of the Three Kings have been a long part of our culture before Santa Claus came into the picture in the mid-1900s.
Though the Bible doesn’t mention an exact number of Wise Men, three have always been culturally represented and commemorated since it is said that Jesus received three gifts.
The story behind this holiday is how the star of Bethlehem appeared in the evening sky after Jesus was born and guided the Three Wise Men on their twelve-day journey there. Also known as Epiphany, this day commemorated when Gaspár, Melchor, and Baltazár arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as homage. It is said that Baltazár came from Ethiopia, Melchor from Arabia, and Gaspár from the Middle East.
In many ways, today’s Three Kings Day traditions are similar to those of Christmas. Much like families put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus the night before, kids all over the Island cut up grass from their backyards or local parks and put it in a box for the Three Kings’ camels to feast on while the Wise Men feast on the cookies left for them. The following day presents are opened next to the tree and families join from all over the Island to celebrate.
Many cultural institutions host Three Kings Day celebrations, gatherings, and presentations. Kids can take pictures with the trio, see reenacted nativity scenes, and eat Puerto Rican delicacies. Likewise, families make arrangements to go to early morning mass to honor this day’s religious background and history, mainly since it is observed as a national holiday across the Island.
Las Octavas and Octavitas
Before the American version of Christmas landed in Puerto Rico, the first two weeks of January were the main time of celebration, commemoration, and prayer. For a certain period of time, the Octavas were an integral part of the holidays. Each wise man had a dedicated day: on January 6th Gaspar was honored, on January 7th, Melchor, and on January 8th, Baltazar. On January 9th, las Octavas began, and later on January 17th, the Octavitas began.
Though the observance of both events is not as common these days, the Octavitas are still referenced and considered a prelude to the street festival, Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián.
Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián
Once Three Kings Day has ended, the Christmas season continues until the third week of January, when the street festival called Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian is celebrated. Though the pandemic has made these festivities look a bit different in the last couple of years, they have been known to be a massive gathering in the streets of Old San Juan.
Spanning two weekends, a variety of traditions take place during these days. Some mornings, some processions end in the San Juan Cathedral. Throughout the day, artisans and small businesses from all over the Island set up booths to display their products, crafts, and artworks while museums host activities for families to cultivate spaces that honor Puerto Rican culture and pride.
Stages are set up across Old San Juan for musical and choreographed performances. Big-headed, puppet-like characters representing traditional folklore (called cabezudos) parade down the streets with pleneros surrounding them, amping up the crowds.
When nighttime rolls around, the party begins. Crowds gather around the plazas and the main street of San Sebastián and bar-hop, enjoy music, and dance all night. People from all over the world have been known to travel just to join one of Puerto Rico’s biggest parties of the year.
The history behind the celebrations
Though historians are not sure when these processions started, it is known that during the 19th century, every street in Old San Juan celebrated them in honor of a particular saint, especially since many of them are named after different ones such as San Sebastián and San Justo. Residents would pick a saint for any street that wasn’t named after one.
This practice doesn’t exist anymore, but the one street that still has its celebration is Calle San Sebastián. This is because the Priest of San Jose’s church, Father Juan Manuel Madrazo, chose to keep this tradition alive during the 1950’s while raising funds to make reparations to the church. Though the purpose of the celebration was mainly religious, folkloric elements of the cabezudos were added as a nod to old Spanish traditions.
When the father moved to a different church, the festivities were halted. Eventually, historian and anthropologist Dr. Ricardo Alegría proposed the residents of San Sebastián Street to revive the tradition during the 1970s. Resident Rafaela Balladares de Brito and her neighbors spearheaded the revival and decided to take the opportunity to raise funds for Colegio de Párvulos.
During the third weekend of January, a procession was celebrated during mid-morning with the image of San Sebastián, from the Colegio de Párvulos to the San Jose church where a mass would be held in the afternoon. Later on, the pleneros and cabezudos would join the festivities.
Puerto Rican Pride
Since its origins and evolutions, these festivities have been a treasured part of the culture. Thankfully, these traditions are preserved even within the communities that form a part of the diaspora. While some religious elements are still preserved as part of the celebrations, it has mostly transformed into a symbol of culture and heritage. It embodies the Puerto Rican spirit of joy and party.