Thanksgiving Day is a holiday in Puerto Rico. But it has very little to do with Pilgrims and Indians. It’s a day for sharing with family and friends, eating lots of delicious food, having a few drinks (sometimes too many), putting up a tree and kicking off the Christmas season.
That’s right! Christmas in Puerto Rico starts on Thanksgiving Day and it extends all the way to the San Sebastian Street Fiestas on the third weekend of January. Some would even argue that they go on even longer, going through “las octavitas— and ending on “el día de la candelaria” (Candlemas Day), February 2nd. However, I’ll stick to the San Sebastian Street Fiestas.
But enough about Christmas. How did Puerto Rico —a Latin American country by any definition— end up celebrating a true American holiday like Thanksgiving Day? Well, it all started in 1898, when the United States invaded the Island.
Back then Puerto Rico had recently been declared a Spanish province and Puerto Ricans were actually Spanish subjects. Christmas started on December 24 (Christmas Eve) and ended on January 6th. And the most important day during that period was January 6, “el día de los Tres Santos Reyes (Three Kings Days).
With the passing of time Puerto Rico has absorbed many aspects of American culture and —believe it or not— Americans have also been influenced in many ways by Puerto Ricans.
Thanksgiving Day in Puerto Rico is the perfect example of a “puertoricanized” American holiday. In most cases Puerto Ricans like their turkey oven roasted, but that’s where the similarity ends. The seasoning is mostly garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. But the stuffing, Mmmmmmmm can be “plantain or casaba mofongo” (mashed green plantains or casaba) or even “fried ripe plantains” mashed to perfection.
Others do away with the turkey altogether and go for pork roast, chicken or a variety of hams.
Then come the trimmings. Some people like their turkey with potato salad and yams. Nothing new there. But others prefer “arroz con gandures” (rice with pigeon peas and little chunks of ham) or “arroz con longaniza” (rice with pork sausage).
And the dessert? Yum… instead of the usual pumpkin or apple pie Puerto Ricans pack on the calories with “tembleque” (coconut pudding) or “arroz con dulce” (rice pudding).
And in the drinking department? Everything, from beer to hard liquor, including Puerto Rico’s own “coquito” (a local concoction made of coconut milk, bootleg rum “ron caña”, and a dash of cinnamon). Some people even drop in a couple of eggs for good measure.
Then they kick back, put on some music, and gather around the domino table.
As the day comes to an end many families pull out the Christmas ornaments and start decorating the tree. From that moment on it’s officially Christmas season, which on the Island means lots of eating, lots of drinking, lots of parties and around ten extra pounds to get rid of in January. Isn’t it great?
One tradition that has slowly been lost with the passing of time has been the “parranda”. A “parranda” was a group of instrument toting family and friends that got together during the Christmas season to visit friends and relatives late at night and wake them to Christmas tunes. Every time they waked up a new family they would add them to the group and go on to additional homes.
When I was a young man, back in the seventies, I would go on my first “parranda” on Thanksgiving night and continue through Friday and Saturday night.
Today that would be very difficult and probably dangerous. With the rising crime wave and gated communities popping up everywhere, “parrandas” have slowly but steadily lost their popularity.
On Friday morning many Puerto Ricans stay home or go out on a Black Friday shopping spree (another American influence).
Finally, Puerto Ricans are a very gregarious people. A typical family gathering, especially in the smaller towns of the Island, can bring together 20, 30 or even more relatives. In fact, just two weeks ago, one of my wife’s cousins visited the Island and the little family gathering went well over 50 patrons.
I guess you could say that it was sort of a dry run for the upcoming Christmas season, although there was nothing “dry” about it.
Enjoy Puerto Rico,
©2013,Orlando Mergal, MA
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