Celebrate: Puerto Rican holiday feasts, festivities last nearly two months

Julia Torres of Amsterdam holds a rice dish
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Julia Torres of Amsterdam holds a rice dish

If you love Christmas, consider a visit to Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean island — and U.S. territory — has the longest holiday season in the world. The festivities kick off the day after Thanksgiving, run through Christmas and continue with the beloved Three Kings celebration on Jan. 6. The party keeps rolling through Jan. 20, when the city of San Juan hosts “Fiestas a la Calle San Sebastian,” a big Mardi Gras-like street festival.

In the Montgomery County city of Amsterdam, where an estimated 30% of residents claim Puerto Rican heritage, the holiday season is not as long or elaborate.

“It’s very different in Puerto Rico,” says Julia Torres.

Torres came to the United States in 1981, when she was a young woman, and lived in Chicago and Brooklyn before settling in Amsterdam.

For years, her holidays had a Puerto Rican flavor, with singing, dancing and feasting. Friends would come over to her house and she would visit their houses.

“We had a great time. Now it’s different because everyone is getting older. Everything’s changed.”

But Torres loves to deck her house with glittery decorations, especially snowmen, and for Christmas she always prepares traditional Puerto Rican foods, the same way her mother taught her, for her children and grandchildren.

“I only cook like that once a year,” she says.

Pasteles, which are similar to tamales, are a traditional holiday dish.

“We make it with banana and we put pork inside,” Torres says.

Index – Celebrate: There’s still so much to Celebrate

Like tamales, pasteles take time to make, as each one has to be wrapped in a banana leaf, tied with string and boiled.

“And we do pernil, the pork,” she says. The meat is seasoned with pepper, garlic and oregano, then slow-roasted.

Torres also makes arroz con gandules, a hearty rice dish with pigeon peas, a kind of legume, that’s simmered with sofrito, a mix of chopped peppers, pimiento and onions, and sazon, a spice blend.

For dessert, Torres whips up some majarete, a sweet pudding made with coconut milk, rice flour and cinnamon.

For those holiday toasts, the popular beverage is coquito, a drink made with coconut milk and rum.

“It’s like eggnog,” Torres says.

When she was a girl in Puerto Rico, her favorite part of Christmas was the parranda, a merry social event that includes music, food and drinks. She remembers walking house to house in the evening with her family, all of them dressed in their best clothes. When they arrived at someone’s house, the group would play instruments (her father played saxophone) and sing outside, and then the neighbors or friends would invite them inside.

And everyone would dance. “It was fun. You would go to the neighbors’ house and they would come to your house.”

In those days, children didn’t receive gifts from Santa on Christmas Day. They had to wait until Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), when the wise men brought their gifts.

“Today they do both,” says Torres.

Another Christmas tradition was the roasting of a pig by each family. After they enjoyed the meat, they snacked on chicharrones — fried pork rinds.

Alberto Beltran, director of community engagement at Centro Civico in Amsterdam, says his uncle and cousins in Puerto Rico really stretch out their holiday time.

“They started their celebration Nov. 1, sharing pictures of the houses being decorated. It goes all the way to February.

They do the parrandas. They love to go from house to house. It’s a party on wheels. Kids and everybody get in the car and they have a road map of who they are going to go visit. They gather, and there will be a full band playing at the last person’s house.”

At Civico Centro, a nonprofit agency that supports Latinos and underserved members of the community, there’s usually a Three Kings celebration. COVID prevented it last year; this year, a smaller Christmas event is planned.

At the Three Kings party, adults dress as Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, and give toys to the children.

“We make sure the tradition stays alive,” Beltran says.

As for Torres, she is looking forward to being with her family, serving them some Puerto Rican food and maybe telling them a few stories about what the holidays were like when she was young.

“No matter how much I tell them, being here is different,” she says.

Beltran, who grew up in Puerto Rico, says parranda is his favorite Christmas tradition, too.

“To this day I miss it,” he says.

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Categories: Celebrate 2021, Life and Arts

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