While the custom of the "parranda" has been largely lost in the shuffle of modern-day urban life, the city of Old San Juan sends organized groups of strolling singers or "trullas" to perform for their neighbors during the weeks surrounding Christmas and Three Kings Day as a way of keeping alive the tradition of the "aguinaldo" and "villancico." As in days past, the carolers accompany themselves with "cuatros" (a higher-pitched cousin of the guitar), percussive gourds known as "guiros," which date to Taino Indian times, and whatever else is at hand, including maracas and even spoons. The sounds are infectious and decidedly upbeat, reflecting the joy of the season.
* Stop in at La Fortaleza. The governor's official residence dresses up for the holidays with its own Christmas tree and nativity scene, both on view to the public in the interior patio. A team of experienced guides conducts tours of the grounds and first floor of this historic structure (the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere) on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. English is spoken during the 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. visits and at those beginning at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The second floor opens for tours at the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. rounds.
* Stroll through the old city on Gallery Night or Noche de Galeria. The Tuesday evening tradition in Old San Juan is at its gala best during the Christmas season, especially along attractive Cristo Street with its eateries, bars and shops. Participating galleries stay open until 10 p.m., allowing shoppers to browse and buy at their leisure. Many of the island's most talented artists are on exhibit and sometimes on hand to meet the public. Many retail stores keep their doors open as well to accommodate the crowds. And don't be surprised to hear the serenades of wandering carolers in the area as the evening progresses.
* Attend an early (6:30 a.m.) Mass on one of the nine days preceding Christmas in historic San Juan Cathedral on Cristo Street. With its vaulted Gothic ceilings, the centuries-old structure provides an inspired setting for the special "misas de aguinaldo" or Christmas carol Masses, which are an island tradition. The series culminates on Christmas with the traditional "misa de gallo" or rooster Mass (so-called because of its early hour), with still more singing.
* Window shop along Cristo Street and adjacent Fortaleza Street for a look at the array of nativity scenes and the variety of carved wooden statues of the beloved Three Kings, always depicted bearing gifts and often seated astride horses instead of camels. In addition to statues of the Holy Family, an array of other hand-fashioned wooden saints or "santos" adorns window displays. These small religious figures are considered one of the most authentic examples of indigenous Puerto Rican folk art. Newly made santos are available at Puerto Rican Folk Arts and Crafts on Fortaleza and in other local shops. Antique versions are more expensive, but can also be purchased in some of the district's galleries such as Botello on Cristo Street.
* Sample a meal at the Mallorquina on San Justo Street. The restaurant (founded in 1848) serves up seasonal Puerto Rican specialties including roasted suckling pig, known here as "lechon"; "arroz con gandules," rice with pigeon peas; "morcilla," a spicy blood sausage; and creamy "coquito," a kind of eggnog spiked with island rum. The restored landmark, with its gracious bar area, splendid mirrors and other European antiques, is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., but remains closed on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
* Take in a performance of "Criollisimo" at the Tapia Theater on Columbus Plaza for an authentic taste of island song, dance and drama as performed by the National Folkloric Ballet of Puerto Rico. During the Christmas season, performances take place twice weekly.
* Visit the Bacardi Fair in Catano (a ferry ride away from the old city across San Juan Bay). Held on the first two Sundays in December, this gathering offers an excellent chance for visitors to view the range of arts and crafts produced in Puerto Rico. More than 300 craftspeople exhibit and sell on the expansive grounds of the world's largest rum manufacturing plant. Prices are better than those found in most stores and there's entertainment, music and food to add to the fun. Bring a hat to protect against the sun.