As early as I can remember, I’ve considered Christmas the happiest holiday. A photo of a four-year-old me, dressed as a shepherdess, reminds me of the Christmas dramas I loved to participate in at church.
The special food of the season took days and many cooks to prepare: lechón (whole pig roasted on a spit), pasteles (a tamale made of plantains and taro stuffed with meat and wrapped in plantain leaves), arroz con dulce (sweet rice with coconut milk and raisins), and green bananas ceviche (a kind of marinated salad). When I grew older, I joined the parrandas of neighbors with guitars, tambourines and accordions caroling Puerto Rican villancicos house to house, surprising friends in the middle of the night with music, invited afterwards for coquito, coconut eggnog spiced with rum, and to dance, sing and eat some more. It was a celebration that started weeks before Christmas Eve or Nochebuena and ended weeks after January 6th, the Three Kings Day.
For Christmas, my parents declared a truce in their marital war and the family celebrated as one. We drove to a nearby town for the best lechón, which the server hacked with his machete , piling the pieces of meat on top of each other on a cardboard plate, the pork rind juices spilling out. We selected the perfect Christmas tree, imported from Canada, under which we built a model of a New England village. It had lakes made of mirrors with skaters wrapped in wool and houses brightly lit; a scene I would enjoy for real thirty years later in my new home town of Brattleboro. But back then, Puerto Rican music filled the air and the smell of my mother’s fruit cake filled the house. On Christmas morning, a pile of coveted gifts miraculously appeared around the tree.
This Christmas, like so many others in my home, we’ll be cooking arroz con gandules and pernil (that’s rice with pigeon peas and roasted pork shoulder) while carols play in both Spanish and English, and the house smells of Christmas adobo and childhood memories. My parents and brother are no longer alive to celebrate with me, but I’ll remember them by reliving those traditions we enjoyed as a family and as a community, which so many years later are still a very joyous part of me.