Hispanic Christmas Traditions

By Anica Wong

September 16, 2011 4 min read

The song "Feliz Navidad" inevitably makes it onto every Christmas mix CD, and red chili lights often adorn houses and trees during the holiday season. With a growing Hispanic population in America, the influence of this culture is hard to hide. But what are some of the original traditions brought from Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Hispanic areas?

First things first, though -- Dr. Carlos Vasquez wants to set everyone straight. The director of history and literary arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center says that most people don't know what real luminarias are. We typically think of luminarias as the small paper lanterns that people line their driveways with. Even the dictionary defines them as such. But those are farolitos, he says. "Luminarias are pitched wood that were about 28 to 30 inches long, cut similar, stacked in perpendicular piles and lit on fire," Vasquez explains.

Now, let's move on to the rest of the traditions.

"It's always going to be looked at through a Catholic lens and the Catholic understanding of Christmas," says Vasquez. Keeping in mind the reason for the season -- the birth of Christ -- leads us to understand Las Posadas, a typically Mexican tradition that is very religious and serious.

Beginning Dec. 16 and continuing through Dec. 24, church members re-enact the journey that Mary and Joseph took while searching for shelter right before Mary gave birth to Jesus. The group goes house to house, asking for shelter, while the host of the home sings a denial of entrance. At last, the procession ends up at the church, where the priest welcomes everyone into the warmth of the church. This tradition can be found in areas in the United States where there are large Mexican or Mexican-American populations.

Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, celebrate parrandas, which are a "very, very festive parade of neighbors and relatives (going) from house to house singing Christmas songs, after which they are greeted at each house with lots of food and drink," explains Dr. Nicolas Kanellos, the Brown Foundation professor at the University of Houston. The parrandas are very secular in nature and are full of jokes, singing and drinking.

Kanellos points out that almost all Hispanic holiday traditions revolve around food. In Puerto Rico, after the parrandas, they serve pasteles, which are similar to the Mexican tamale. Pasteles, though, are bigger and wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a cornhusk, like a tamale. Puerto Ricans also include rum, roast-suckling pigs and rice with pigeon peas into their feasts.

Although food plays a key role in the celebrations of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, what is more important than the meal itself is the camaraderie that comes with the preparation of the food.

"It's a process of making them," says Vasquez. "It's when all the ladies get together and work and exchange stories and exchange gossip." The same happens for the men when the meat for the tamale or pasteles is butchered.

Even with strong customs and food that is sure to fill every belly, some are worried that the traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation will be lost in the hustle and bustle of the commercialized holiday here in the U.S.

"The more you urbanize the more the culture gets diffused," argues Vasquez. "How do the ways we celebrate holidays like that bring us together with the rest of society or set us apart? And how is the overall society diffusing what we used to be?"

On the flip side are others who think the rituals will be kept alive, like a burning flame, by the ones who believe in them the most.

"I think that there is an agreement among many families and Hispanic ethnicities to try to retain these traditions," says Kanellos.

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