Celebrations in Old San Juan reflect Puerto Rico's age-old blending of cultures


December 22, 1991|By Suzanne Murphy

It's been said that Puerto Rico celebrates nearly twice as many holidays a year as its stateside neighbors. But of all the festive activities that take place on this subtropical island in the eastern Caribbean, none are welcomed with more gusto than those surrounding the Christmas season.

Festivities last much longer than in mainland cities to the north, although not everyone agrees on just when they actually begin. For some, Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, marks their official opening, while others contend that the ball gets rolling as early as Thanksgiving. The gatherings, music making and gift giving don't stop with the arrival of the New Year, however, but continue at full speed through the Epiphany or Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, in accordance with Spanish custom. If that's not enough for confirmed party animals, they're allowed to prolong the merrymaking eight days more to the "octava" and yet again eight more to the "octavita," which in turn ushers in the Fiesta of Calle San Sebastian, a lively street festival in mid-January.

Fun-loving, family-oriented and deeply attached to their Roman Catholic roots, Puerto Ricans do much of their holiday entertaining at home or at other private gatherings, but island visitors can easily sample some of the seasonal celebrations as well, especially in the ancient, walled city of Old San Juan, the second oldest settlement in the Americas. For centuries Puerto Rico's spiritual and cultural heart, it is currently undergoing a full-scale restoration in preparation for 1992, the fifth centennial of Columbus' arrival in the New World.

As the holidays approach and the weather turns mild and sunny, the old city bedecks itself with yards of ribbon, tiny white lights and fragrant wreaths. Brilliant red poinsettias (known here as "flores de pascuas") blaze forth from Spanish colonial balconies, store windows fill with elaborately carved nativity scenes and the narrow, cobbled streets surge with shoppers, carolers, clowns and other costumed characters.

More than a trace of North American Christmas tradition is in evidence around town, most notably in the glittering two-story evergreen gracing Plaza de Armas, a popular year-round meeting place and the site of City Hall. Various incarnations of "Santa Clos" also put in regular appearances at street processions and behind the wheel of the motorized trolleys, which ferry tourists and locals about the seven square blocks that comprise the historic district.

To the casual observer, the goings-on might seem no more than a carbon copy of celebrations in other parts of the world, but a closer look reveals that Christmas Puerto Rican style boasts its own set of traditions stemming from its history and the centuries-long blending of cultures and bloodlines, which began with the island's European discovery in 1493.

Santa, for example, although more highly visible with each passing year, still takes a back seat to the ubiquitous Three Kings, Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar, who, according to New Testament writings, followed a star to Bethlehem in search of the Christ child. The Catholic custom of honoring the trio was brought to Puerto Rico by early colonizers, but over the centuries the Magi from Persia, Ethiopia and Arabia have come to symbolize the island's racial mix of Indian, African and Spanish. On Epiphany Eve, children still leave boxes of grass or straw for the regal travelers' mounts, only to find them filled with gifts on the following morning.

Over the past several decades, in a new-found appreciation of island tradition, the Three Kings have become an increasingly popular theme among local graphic artists, woodworkers, ceramicists and painters. Homage to the likable threesome occurs in song as well, namely in ancient Spanish carols known )) as "villancicos" and their profane counterparts, "aguinaldos." Music, in fact, is at the very heart of the Puerto Rican holiday season and the distinctive rhythms of Christmas can be heard on the radio as early as September.

During Puerto Rico's not so distant rural past, neighbors visited neighbors to share the holiday spirit through singing, dancing and feasting in an activity known as a "parranda." These impromptu social calls by friends and relatives usually occurred late at night, and those who received the serenading at their door were expected to welcome the unexpected guests with food and drink in return for more music and entertainment.

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