Season of Joy: Holiday Traditions and Celebrations in Puerto Rico

Photo Credit: Jorge Rodriguez

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If you can’t get enough of the holiday season, Puerto Rico is a dream come true. On this festive island, la Navidad lasts nearly two months, starting right after Thanksgiving and extending into mid-January. It’s the longest holiday season in the world! 

Get ready to celebrate like a Boricua (a Puerto Rican native) with these traditions and festivals on this party-loving island!

Christmas Traditions with a Puerto Rican Twist

Festive carols, traditional holiday dishes, and colorful decor are all part of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico. But you’ll find a few unexpected twists!

Singing for Coquito

Nights are anything but silent during the holiday season in Puerto Rico. In fact, the local Christmas caroling tradition, or parranda, can be quite a shock! It starts with a small group of revelers prepared with instruments like panderos (small tambourines), maracas, güiros (notched gourds for percussion), cuatros (small 4-stringed guitars), and regular guitars. 

A frothy glass of Puerto Rican coquito.

The group of parranderos will sneak up to the homes of friends and family late at night, startling them awake with traditional Christmas songs called aguinaldos. The newly awakened are encouraged to join the party. Together, they’ll move on to house after house to sing, wake up more friends, and share coquito, a creamy concoction of coconut milk and rum.

The Holiday Spread

Traditional holiday food takes on a decidedly island flavor in Puerto Rico. 

A standard Christmas Eve meal might center on national dish pernil, tender roasted pork with crispy skin. On the side, your plate could overflow with arroz con grandules, a Christmas staple of rice, pork, aromatic sofrito, and local pigeon peas. And the neat green bundles on the table are pasteles, patties made from green banana, green plantain, and a starchy root like yucca, wrapped up in banana leaves and boiled. Sip on coquito and leave room for tembleque, a coconut-based pudding, for dessert! 

Deck the Halls in Island Style

Puerto Rico dons its holiday decor as early as Thanksgiving and keeps it on until at least mid-January. You’ll spot traditional Christmas trees lit up with twinkling lights and colorful ornaments. Public spaces erect intricate light displays with jolly Santas, nativity scenes, and jibaritos, iconic Puerto Rican farmers donning large straw hats. 

Pascua flowers (usually called poinsettias on the mainland) abound with their cheerful red petals. And even though the temperatures stay warm through the season, you’ll find plenty of reindeer and snowflakes!

San Juan, Puerto Rico, decorated for the holidays.

Celebrate the Puerto Rican Way

With nearly two months of festivities, there’s a Navidad celebration for everyone in Puerto Rico, both secular and religious. 

Encendido de Navidad

The holiday season kicks off with Encendido de Navidad, the official “Christmas lighting.” Towns all over the island illuminate their central squares with a festive tree and thousands of twinkling lights, spreading a rosy glow and signaling to all that the holidays have arrived. 

Old San Juan during the Christmas season.

In San Juan, the spectacular Christmas tree in Plaza de Armas is lit even before Thanksgiving. The lighting ceremony includes live music and dancing and starts a full month of holiday festivities all over the city. Look for children singing traditional songs, professional concerts by the Puerto Rico Philharmonic, and a popular Christmas market. 

In the small mountain town of Ciales, the tree lighting comes with a holiday feast of pernil and arroz con grandules. After eating your fill, explore arts and crafts at the holiday market and dance to live music. 

And in Caguas, the tree lighting comes with so much music that it takes three stages to hold it all. Visitors can walk from stage to stage and visit the artisan market for shopping and delicious snacks between performances. 

Misa de Aguinaldo and Miso de Gallo

While Puerto Ricans love to party through the holidays, there are many religious observances as well. The Misa de Aguinaldos are dawn masses held each morning from December 16th to 24th. These services are upbeat and musical, often featuring the same traditional instruments as the parranda carolers! 

Miso de Gallo is a midnight mass held overnight from December 24th to 25th. This is often a candlelit mass that includes singing traditional religious songs and a nativity reenactment to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.

The majority of Boricuas are Roman Catholic, so these religious observances are an integral part of the Christmas holidays. 

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve)

Nochebuena is the “main event” of the holiday season. But instead of celebrating on Christmas Day, this festive occasion is observed on Christmas Eve. Friends and family gather for a late-night dinner of roast pork, arroz con grandules, and pasteles, often served around 10 p.m. This is usually when Boricuas exchange gifts, although the kiddos may have to wait until the next morning to see what Santa Claus brought them. 

After dinner and gifts, groups may attend Misa de Gallo, or go out on parrandas to sing, make merry, and drink coquito

Festival de Máscaras de Hatillo

On December 28th, Boricuas gather in the town of Hatillo to celebrate the Dia de los Santos Inocentes, the Puerto Rican version of April Fools’ Day, with the Festival de Máscaras de Hatillo. This “festival of masks” dates back to 1823, when it was founded by Spanish settlers to commemorate the children killed by King Herod’s men looking for the infant Jesus. 

Despite those tragic roots, the day is now one of joy and mischief. Up to 30,000 locals and visitors parade through the streets of Hatillo, decked out in colorful costumes and paper mache masks. Live music and flashy floats accompany the marchers and watchers as they eat, drink, and play pranks. It all ends in a street party in Plaza Publica, with great food and local vendors.

Three Kings’ Day

In Puerto Rico, the “three kings” of the nativity get their own special celebration! Three Kings Day, or Fiesta de los Tres Reyes Magos, honors the three wise men and their visit to the baby Jesus in the manger. 

Three Kind’s Day parade and celebrations.

Many towns across the island hold Three Kings’ Day festivals on January 6th, with the largest taking place in Juana Diaz. This celebration has been a mainstay since 1884, and it has evolved into one of the most colorful and vibrant events on the calendar, with 25,000 annual participants. 

Local artisans, food vendors, and upbeat musicians create a festival atmosphere all day long. But the biggest draw is the parade led by the richly costumed Magi of Juana Diaz themselves, riding on horseback. Paraders hand out gifts and toys to watching children before the magi join a nativity recreation. 

Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián

The Puerto Rican holiday season doesn’t end until Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian (known as la SanSe), usually held on the third weekend in January. This is the biggest festival in Puerto Rico, transforming the colorful streets of Calle San Sebastián and the Old San Juan neighborhood into a festival ground. 

Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. Photo Credit: Jorge Rodriguez.

Join the parade routes through the streets. You’ll spot stilt walkers and cabezudos, oversized paper mache “big heads” that represent historical characters and folklore archetypes. Snack on crispy codfish fritters and sip cold drinks while you browse artisan booths offering art, jewelry, and mementos. And, of course, dance all day and into the night! There are musicians and dancers around every corner, plus official stages in several of the Old San Juan plazas.

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