Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas in Puerto Rico

HAPPY NEW YEAR to all our friends and readers.

Last Christmas my husband and I were on board a ship off the coast of New Zealand. This year we decided to again seek warmer weather but without traveling from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Though we’ve visited many Caribbean islands in the past, this was our first visit to Puerto Rico and we now see why it’s called “Island of Enchantment.” With no grandchildren to spoil on Christmas Day, we planned this trip on the spur of the moment. We’d fly from Southern California to New York City to stay with our globe-trotting son for a week then arrive in Puerto Rico on December 15th. Our suitcases bulged with winter clothes mixed in with lightweight tropical garb.

After a fun, but chilly (weather-wise) visit with our son, we flew southeast and arrived late in the evening. San Juan greeted us with a downpour and a comfortable 70 plus degree breeze. Quick, throw off your jacket and put on a tank top! In San Juan we viewed beautiful Christmas light displays in all the plazas.

La Fortaleza (the Governor’s mansion) has a charming light and Christmas carols show as well. I have to say Puerto Rico goes all out decorating their public places for Christmas. The lights and colors were awe-inspiring as were the families with small children delighting in the spectacle.

In the west coast city of Mayagüez there is a very different holiday display, what seemed at first an odd theme of an Arabic woman titled La Sultana Del Caribe.

We learned there are several legends on the subject, including one that said that the Sultana was a beautiful woman who was walking through the streets of Mayagüez but no one knew her ancestry. The fact is that the city adopted a tradition from Moorish Cordoba, Spain. Now in the 21st century Mayagüez is known as the Sultan of the Caribbean for marketing purposes worldwide.

Fearing we’d be stuck in a cold lonely hotel room for the holiday I had searched frantically before leaving home for somewhere hospitable and intimate. Luckily, I found lodging for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at a remote location deep in the northwest karst country between Arecibo and Utuado.

We had our own casita (little house) consisting of a bedroom, screened porch and private bathroom. No glass windows, only screens and wooden shutters.

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) trumps Christmas Day for most Puerto Ricans. Our hosts Joan/Juanita and Tony, a former chef and restaurant owner, served a typical and delicious Puerto Rican Christmas Eve dinner. Tony’s eighty-seven year old mother made pasteles (folded over dough filled with meat and vegetables, and then fried). Lechón (roast pork) followed this hearty appetizer, accompanied with coleslaw and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas which Tony had harvested from his own garden). Small platters of amarillos (overripe sliced plantains fried until sweetly caramelized) complemented the pork, replacing the standard apple sauce.

Instead of eggnog, you have coquito, or coconut nog (with rum) which is delicious and a lot more potent than it tastes! We spent the evening eating, drinking and getting acquainted with everyone. This included the host’s grown son and daughter along with one other couple, old friends of the family. Tony’s mother was a charmer, speaking only Spanish to us as if we understood every word. But it didn’t matter because the friendliness and joy of the gathering overcame any language barrier.

As if this unique experience wasn’t enough a 5.4 earthquake struck as we stood in the open air “bohio” after our meal.

Our location wasn’t the epicenter. We didn’t learn the Richter scale magnitude of the quake until a couple days later. You are lucky to get cell phone service and don’t expect Wi Fi! This is a no TV or radio type of existence, which we loved.

Christmas celebrations don’t end on Christmas Day here. Before Puerto Rican traditions became influenced by American culture some gifts were received at some houses, but it was not from San Nicolás. Santa couldn't make it to the tropics in his hot wool suit with cap and reindeer. Their holiday gifts used to be from Los Reyes Magos.

On the night before January 6, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), Puerto Rican children go outside with scissors and shoe boxes to cut grass for the camels to eat. The grass goes into shoe boxes and the boxes are placed under the beds of parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts, etc. Sometime during the night Los Reyes come and while their camels eat the grass Los Reyes fill the shoe boxes to overflowing with gifts, and sweets, and many wonderful things. The Kings themselves don't get a plate of cookies or a glass of warm milk. All these traditions give Puerto Ricans a separate identity from the rest of the world.

Awash in vivid memories of beautiful beaches, lush vegetation, rugged mountains and boldly colored homes, we returned to Southern California on December 27. But most of all, our hearts overflowed with a sense of peace on earth. The truly special part is the new friends we made during our brief stay and a new understanding of the place named Puerto Rico.

What is your most unusual Christmas experience?


L. A. Lopez said...

Happy New Year...Mine was at a gas station in the middle of Mojave desert, where I wished a man wearing a Turban behind the counter 'Happy Holidays' without thinking. He smiled at me with a wide grin, and wished me a cheerful 'Merry Christmas'. Then we discussed his faith's holiday that falls in December. It was both unusual and very enlightening and a experience I'll never forget.

Sheila Tenold said...

Wow, was the man a Sikh?
My husband and I stayed at a Mojave, California, motel just before Christmas in 2008. No turbaned man but the family were from India. A historic high dessert snowstorm standed motorists overnight, including us! Thankfully we didn't have to spend Christmas eve there.

Carly Carson said...

I'm always with my large extended family on Christmas, so no traveling for me. Your pictures are great. I've found the Puerto Rican people to always be warm and friendly, and anxious to practice their English.

Sheila Tenold said...

Thanks, Carly. I'm hopeful we'll have one grandchild by next Christmas. I'm loaded with grandmother energy.
We didn't encounter one single unfriendly person in Puerto Rico, even in busy San Juan! I just wish my Spanish was half as good as their English!

Joan Leacott said...

Hey Sheila, your casita looks fabulous. How lucky you were to spend the holidays there. Have a Wonderful and Productive New Year!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

WOW what a wonderful experience for you. It was so interesting to read through your blog and learn how different their Christmas is than ours. I enjoyed reading about it all and the photos are remarkable.

We don't have any unusual Christmas tales to share. Up here in the mountains, life is usually more quiet during the winters months because we have the snow to contend with and don't leave the house much.

Happy New Year to you. :)

Sheila Tenold said...

Thanks, Joan. I wish you a successful writing year and a healthy and prospeous New Year to you and yours!

Sheila Tenold said...

Paisley, you're lucky to have a mountain Christmas each year.

I spend one winter in Lake Tahoe with a white Christmas, carolers singing outside like you see in holiday cards, and neighbors delivering a freshly-cut tree to my front door! A wonderful experience I will always cherish.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Sheila, we live halfway between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento on Highway 50. It is beautiful here. My hubby and his friend have always gone out into the forest to pick out a tree. I always ask for a small one - but, they keep saying that out in the forest with all those giant trees that an 18 footer looks small. :)

Sheila Tenold said...

Paisley, I've driven on Highway 50 many a time. I lived on the south shore of Tahoe near the Y.

Our Christmas tree that year wasn't an 18 footer, for sure, but the wonderful fresh scent made the house smell like the outdoors.

Mona Risk said...

Sheila, I enjoyed your post and gorgeous pictures. I have been to Puerto Rico three times but never over Christmas. I like to spend Christmas week at home and cook for my children and grandchildren.
Happy New Year.

Sheila Tenold said...

Thank you, Mona.
I'm hoping by next Christmas we'll have a grandchild to keep us home celebrting. My fingers are crossed!

Happy New Year to You and Yours.

Jill James said...

Sheila, it sounds like a wonderful holiday. Some day I would like to leave all the hustle and bustle of the season behind and find a deserted island with just the hubby and me, white sand, and blue oceans.

Sheila Tenold said...

Jill, do consider Puerto Rico. No passport needed, they use U.S currency, and the people are super friendly. Two smaller islands, Culebra and Vieques, are off the beaten path and accessible by ferry.

Joanne said...

What a lovely way to spend the New Year holiday. I was in Puerto Rico once, many years ago. Your "vacation" home sounded charming.