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Latino Christmas Traditions

Maria Owen-De Padilla

Two members of WGCU’s Diversity Advisory Group share their Latino holiday traditions with us today. Carmen Rey-Gomez’s family helps her remember their Puerto Rican Christmas caroling. Next, Maria Palacio explores Nochebuena or Christmas Eve.

A Christmas Surprise! by Carmen Rey-Gomez Director of the Hispanic Institute at Hodges University

Asalto! I looked at myself in the mirror with blurry eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.  I thought for sure Oscar had the TV on.  After all it was the start of the holiday and he’s an early riser even when he’s off of work.  The term was winding down and I was on my way to give my students their final exam.  To them they day would most likely be filled with exam j

  itters but for me, it would turn out to be one full of surprises!

It was 6:30 in the morning and I tried to hone in on the music coming from outside.  I slowly opened the bathroom door and the light shot through the bedroom like a laser. My husband was nowhere to be found.  The sound became louder and louder as I walked in and I found myself frozen, in the dark, in the middle of our room, transported, as if by a musical time machine, to my childhood in Hartford. A time when Christmas caroling or “Parandas” as we call them in Puerto Rico, began after Thanksgiving weekend and ended eight days after Three Kings Day. I remember the anticipation and excitement of going from home to home in caravans of eight or more cars, standing in the freezing cold, singing “ASALTO! Si no me dan de vever lloro!”  We would stand there seeing our breath until finally the door would open, our faces would slowly defrost, and the food, dancing and laughing would begin.  I remember waking up on mountains of leather coats as the music blared outside the room. But here? In Cape Coral? I hadn’t been part of this tradition here.  I’m sure many families celebrate this way, but not me, after all, my family now consisted of only my husband my children and I.  Everyone else was still up north or in Puerto Rico.

My children’s voice broke me from my trance. Danilo and Adriel both asked who was at the door. The music thundered as I made my way to the living room.  I noticed Oscar standing by the door now, waiting for me to open it!  His eyes shined with the same anticipation mine did as a child when I waited to be let in.  I opened the door, and there they stood, in the warm Florida morning haze, wrapped in their winter clothes, with their musical instruments, cuatro, maracas, guiro in hand, all announcing their arrival.  Singing, clapping, exclaiming “ASALTO! Saludos, Saludos vego a saludar” After 30 hours of travel on the road, in snow and sleet, they made the trip, my family! my parents, my brother, my sister and their spouses and their children.  Standing on my door step!

Nochebuena Memories and Traditions by Maria Palacio Regional Manager of the Northwest Regional Library in Cape Coral.

Like any child, I loved the Christmas season but growing up in a Colombian family in northern New Jersey, the emphasis for us was not so much on Christmas Day as it  was on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena.  My memories of this night are truly special, but there was a lot to do before we gathered with our extended family for a night of traditional Colombian meals like tamales or arroz con coco, music, dancing and games with my sister and our cousins.  

 The prelude to opening our presents began nine days before Christmas. My mom would sit my sister and me down near the nativity scene she painstakingly recreated each year. Not only did it include the little figures of Mary, Joseph, my great grandmother’s three Wise Men and the Baby Jesus in the manger,  but she would set up a Christmas village with small homes of various colors, that would glow with warm light with the help of bulbs on strings inserted in the back.  Each night until midnight on Christmas Eve, my mother would lead us in the novena for Baby Jesus.  We would read a passage from the prayer book in Spanish and then sing villancicos or Christmas carols from Colombia and other parts of Latin America. My favorite was one called “El Burrito Sabanero,” which tells the story of a little boy riding his donkey toward Bethlehem to visit el Niño Jesus or Baby Jesus.   After our prayers and songs, we’d eat traditional Colombian desserts like natilla dusted with cinnamon or bakery treats like buñuelos, deditos de queso or pan de bono.

As an adult, with children of my own, I have strived to share these very same traditions with my two sons.  Some years are better than others and our work, school and extra- curricular activities allow us to pray and sing most nights, host the novena in our home or visit the homes of some of our friends.   Next Navidad, our goal is to share the novena and villancicos with friends who are not Latino, in the hopes of starting a new and more inclusive tradition that culminates with our yearly Nochebuena party.