Island Holiday: Christmas in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, Christmastime brings a series of joyous, satisfying feasts
Enlarge Image Credit: Penny de los SantosGrowing up in New Jersey, Christmas always meant snow, cozy fireplaces, chestnuts, and Santa Claus. But my idea of the holidays changed in 1990, the first year I spent them with my then boyfriend, Ronnie Rodriguez, and his family at their home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was 23 years old, sunburned, mosquito-bitten, and feeling out of place at their annual Christmas Eve celebration, called Nochebuena. I remember trying to identify all of the dishes on the sprawling buffet: yellow rice with brownish-green pigeon peas; platters of glistening roast pork and black-as-night blood sausage studded with rice; bowls filled with round and oblong fritters. As I placed a small banana leaf bundle on my plate, I heard whispers coming from Ronnie's great aunts, Rosita and Goyin. "Mira! She's eating our food!" said Goyin, who had years of experience with her own sons' gringa girlfriends and their skittish ways at the table. "Do you think she knows what pasteles are?" wondered Rosita aloud.
I had no idea, but they struck me as seasonally appropriate—little green parcels made from banana leaves, so neatly wrapped they looked like they belonged under a Christmas tree. I found out later that they are the quintessential Puerto Rican holiday food—tamales made from green banana or plantain and yautia (a starchy locally grown tuber) that are so labor-intensive to prepare, you find them only on special occasions.
I unraveled the package on my plate. Inside was a deliciously sweet golden plantain paste, flavored with smoky pork, briny olives, and a hint of dried fruit, moister and more complex than any tamales I'd ever eaten. I caught Rosita and Goyin smiling as I enthusiastically unwrapped another. From that day forward, pasteles became my favorite holiday dish, and soon, that season became my favorite time to visit Puerto Rico.
No one prolongs the holidays like Puerto Ricans: I realized this once Ronnie and I were married and started spending much of the Christmas season on the island. The celebration begins at Thanksgiving, kicking off two months of parties, both scheduled and spontaneous. The festivities gain momentum on Nochebuena and pick up steam on the way to New Year's; minor religious holidays like Día de los Inocentes (December 28) are celebrated with parades in the countryside and family meals. But the real climax of the season is Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings' Day, on January 6, which is followed by Octavitas, religiously known as "eight days of admiration," but commonly referred to as "one more week to party." Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, a three-day Mardi Gras—style street festival, closes out the holidays in mid-January.
Ronnie's family has lived in Puerto Rico since their ancestors arrived from Spain in the 19th century, and they embrace the spirit of the season. I'll never forget the first time I was jolted out of bed in the middle of the night by a noisy parranda—a crowd of carolers singing traditional Spanish songs and threatening not to move on until invited into Ronnie's home for food and drink. Or learning to save an appetite for two dinners on Nochebuena: first at my father-in-law's, then at Ronnie's aunt's apartment. New Year's was marked by a party at the home of his uncle, Tio Richard, who always arranged a visit by trovadores, sharp-tongued musicians who improvised songs about the family.
It's the novelty of Three Kings' Day that I adore most of all.But it's the novelty of Three Kings' Day that I adore most of all. On its eve, children leave a shoebox full of hay out for the Magi, who ostensibly trample through the house on camels during the night to leave gifts. In the morning, the kids awaken to find strewn hay and upturned furniture. The adults feign outrage, while the children, still amazed by the miracle they had just witnessed, run to the gifts awaiting them. Later in the day, Ronnie's family heads to the countryside for yet another gigantic meal.
From family to family, feast to feast, the menu is usually the same. Typically, there's an assortment of frituras, like codfish fritters (called bacalaítos), and tostones, rounds of twice-fried green plantains. Guests gather around a buffet that features pasteles; arroz con gandules, rice cooked with pigeon peas; guineos en escabeche, pickled green bananas; morcilla, an intensely flavored, ebony-colored sausage made from pigs' blood and rice; and the main events—lechón, a whole spit-roasted pig, its juicy flesh encased in an outer layer of fat and crackling skin, and sometimes a pavochon (turkey seasoned and cooked in the style of the pork). Dessert is always tembleque, smooth coconut custard, and coquito, the rich Puerto Rican eggnog, made with coconut milk and rum.