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Christmastime Celebrations in Cabo Rojo

A Second Christmas Day
El Dia de los Reyes Magos celebrates the Three Kings that in the Bible bestowed gifts upon Baby Jesus. In Puerto Rican tradition, on the night of January 5th, the kings come to every household to leave presents for the children.

As a child, I remember taking photos with them in shopping centers (just like I had done with Santa weeks earlier). I also remember picking grass from my grandpa's farm to leave for the camels. I remember tossing and turning at night in a struggle to power down the excitement rising in my heart.

The kings came to Catholic masses (as seen in the picture) and paraded across towns (in horses that for some reason I didn't realize weren't camels) all over Puerto Rico. But no town makes a better spectacle than Juana Diaz.

When I was little, I lived an hour away, but every year, my mom would wake me up before the crack of dawn and whisk me off to the far away land of candy dreams come true. Under balconies still adorned with Christmas lights, people crowded the streets in the kind of joyful spirit that one can only have at 4 a.m. if it's Christmas.

In majestic red, gold, and silver costumes and crowns studded with precious stones, the kings rode by us slowly. Candy rains down on us and waves from the king are better than the candy itself to adoring youngsters.

The kings' procession ends at a town square set up for the Eucharist and a reenactment that ends with the kings adoring Baby Jesus.

Christmas, Island Style
What my island lacks in snow, it more than makes up for in liveliness.

Christmas festivities begin with the Misas de Aguinaldo, Catholic masses celebrated the for the nine days before Christmas Eve. These masses start around 5 or 6 a.m. and are accompanied by cheerful singing throughout the mass and after the mass, when people gather to drink hot chocolate, coffee, and juice, and eat sandwiches and local pastries. On the 24th, the Misa de Gallo (midnight mass, named after the rooster) is often partly candlelit and features a short reenactment of the nativity scene.

After New Year’s, locals celebrate Epiphany—the arrival of the Three Wise Men to the manger. Like Santa Claus, the Three Wise Men bring presents. Children pick grass the day before and leave it for the camels, and the next day they sometimes bring cookies to the men who dress up as magi in church. Many parades feature three men dressed up on horses and throwing candy to the children (the best is the one in Jayuya). But the fun doesn't end there: the Octavitas (days where verses are sung to honor the magi) last from January 9th to the 17th.

Throughout this whole time, locals love to throw parrandas—our equivalent of caroling. Late at night, people go to their friends’ houses to wake them up with traditional Christmas songs. Once inside, everyone dances and plays instruments, has some snacks, and catches up. The group grows along the way as people from each house join to surprise the next.

Holiday food in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican food is known for its rich flavors, but you won't really know what it's all about until you try holiday fare.

Arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) accompanies many meals, including the roast pork that helps characterize Christmas Eve dinner. Pasteles (dough made out of plantains—or rice or yucca—, colored with anatto oil, wrapped in a plantain leaf, and stuffed with meat) are also often served.

Common side dishes are guineitos in escabeche (green bananas boiled and then pickled with onions and garlic) and mollejas. Funny thing is, though I'm not a picky eater, I've been avoiding sweetbreads for years, but I just found out that's what mollejas are and I adore my dad's mollejas. This makes me feel both ignorant and picky, but I figured I should tell the story in case it gets you to try them.

Popular holiday desserts are overall coconut-based. My favorite, arroz con dulce, consists of rice cooked as usual and then simmered with three milks (coconut, condensed, and evaporated), whole cloves, shredded coconut, a cinnamon stick, and raisins. The tembleque, a sort of coconut pudding, always invites smiles all around.

But the coquito—our version of eggnog—is really the creme de la creme of Puerto Rican holiday cuisine. It tastes like alcoholic vanilla ice cream with the tiniest hints of dulce de leche and cinnamon. (It is usually made with rum, since Puerto Rico is in the major leagues of rum production, but can be made without alcohol for children).

Hot sunset in Puerto Rico
Relax and cool off at the light house of "Los Morillos" in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, built in 1881 by the Spaniards. It sits on a 200 feet high cliff giving you a 360 degree view. From there hike to the secluded beach of "Playa Sucia" and enjoy the warm, shallow waters and firm, white sands.

Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico