The Philippines may take the prize when it comes to the longest holiday season, but Puerto Rico is, without a doubt, the runner-up. From the music to the food to the never-ending parties, celebrations on the Island start earlier and earlier each year. As soon as the first week of November kicks in, lights start to adorn houses, Bombazo Navideño starts to blast on the radio, and abuelitas everywhere start their production of pasteles for family, friends, and neighbors by the dozens.
Since Puerto Rico has amassed an array of cultural influences, our holiday customs are unique and distinctive. The instruments, foods, and rituals that were a part of our ancestors’ traditions during this time have meshed into what makes up today’s iconic qualities of the festive season.
Though salsa and merengue are heard on the radio year-round, they take center stage during the holidays. Artists like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Cheo Feliciano are known for their Christmas hits during the holidays. Whole albums dedicated to lyrics that reflect the festivities, tales, and unofficial anthems, are played on repeat all season long.
Alongside these genres are aguinaldos, usually sung during parrandas— the Boricua version of caroling. Historically, its lyrics used to be religious lyrical offerings, also known as villancicos. Today, they are written and sung more often as coplas and décimas covering all different themes and stories. Though aguinaldos themselves were inherited from Spanish colonizers, parrandas are particularly special because they embody the spirit of traditional folk culture and are reminiscent of the age of el jíbaro.
During parrandas, it’s also customary to sing bombas. Each person has to have their funny verse ready to be chanted if they’re called on. Once the words “la bomba, ay que rica es…” are sung, you better have your bomba ready; otherwise, you will be faced with touts of “¡no sabe ná!”
The season’s most popular dishes are anticipated just as much as Thanksgiving dinner. This part of the holidays is so important that many of the most famous Christmas songs sing about them. Lechón, arroz con gandules, morcillas, pasteles, coquito, tembleque… These words aren’t just names of dishes; they’re also lyrics! Each is made in huge quantities to bring to Christmas parties or even sell to entire communities.
Festivities usually start from the day we commemorate the Discovery of Puerto Rico. Many institutions, especially schools, use this day to kick off Puerto Rican week (la Semana de la Puertorriqueñidad). Decorations and activities celebrate our heritage, culture, and traditions with the intent to honor, educate and uphold tradition. Though there is now more awareness and dialogue around this commemoration’s history, it’s still observed with pride. Consequently, it has become an iconic celebration to kick off the season for many.
Alongside this, one of the main reasons the holidays on the Island are so long is because of celebrations like Three Kings Day, las Octavitas and Las Fiestas de la calle San Sebastián. Las Octavitas is a remnant of old rituals that extended religious observation and commemoration. The celebration starts the day after Three Kings Day and lasts eight days until it’s all closed out by Las Fiestas de la calle San Sebastián.
The traditions that make up our holiday season are a big part of what shapes Puerto Rican pride and identity. Though these are all cherished and upheld year-round, the holidays allow a sacred chunk of time to truly celebrate heritage, family, and the well-deserved welcome of a fresh new start to the new year.