The Colonization of Christmas in Puerto Rico (OPINION)

Dec 12, 2022
3:04 PM

A contemporary representation of Los Tres Reyes from Puerto Rico, with the middle figure holding the Puerto Rican flag. (National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution/CC BY-NC 2.0)

LOÍZA, Puerto Rico — At approximately 45 days, Puerto Rico is known for having one of the longest holiday seasons in the world. Starting the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and ending with Las Octavitas on 14 January, a festive aura envelopes the archipelago. From shopping malls with giant Santa sleigh and reindeer displays to restaurants featuring extravagantly decorated faux spruce trees to smaller businesses adorned with colorful lights, nearly everyone here welcomes la epoca navideña.

But amidst the merriment, there’s one significant cultural tradition whose absence is painfully palpable : Los Reyes Magos.

Brought to Borikén by the Spanish colonizers, the Three Kings (or Wise Men) custom is sometimes referred to as “Christmas with a Latin twist.” Steeped in Christianity, it sets the stage for the observance of The Epiphany on 6 January.

As the tale goes, the camel-riding Three Wise Men —Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar— arrived in Bethlehem, showering baby Jesus with gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. In Puerto Rico, the story swaps horses for camels.

Whether or not you follow the religiosity of the season is secondary. For many puertorriqueñxs, our affinity to this time of year is a selectively secular one. We abhor religious indoctrination yet adamantly adhere to our cultural identity. For us, it is imperative that Los Reyes take center stage during the holidays.

So why is it that with the fanfare surrounding the season, colorful (life-size) representations of the Three Wise Men are often only seen in town squares, select public school lawns, and prideful Puerto Rican residences?

One word: colonization.

An Imported Myth, A Poor Substitute

As with many other things imported from and imposed on us by the U.S., the holiday season remains a strong reminder of the yanquí invasion in our collective psyche. Do folks wonder how St. Nick, a Greek saint born in approximately 280 A.D., turned into the Santa Claus fairytale on American soil centuries later?

Or perhaps the question should be, do they even care about the history behind an old, fat white guy who holds zero resemblance to anything in la cultura boricua?

Still, there’s a segment of our society that understands what’s happening and worries that Santa Claus might become a poor substitute for our rich cultural traditions. Folks like Jennifer Calderón and Carlos De Jesús are part of that population. These owners of Sabor Criollo, a popular Loíza food truck, fondly recall visiting live nativity scenes and eagerly awaiting presents left by the Three Kings.

Las farmacias sold little boxes of hay that my mother bought for us to put under our beds for the horses. My siblings and I were so excited to see what Los Reyes brought us,” said Calderón, who grew up in Loíza. “Santa Claus is prominent because people here place a higher value on everything that comes from the U.S.”

De Jesús, a native of Santurce, reflects on another aspect of his childhood. “Los Reyes on 6 January meant less time to play with our toys… because a few days later, school started. That was another reason for the wide acceptance of Santa Claus. Who doesn’t want more time to play with their toys?”

Indeed, the popular sentiment became the inspiration behind El Gran Combo’s resistance song, “La Protesta de Los Reyes.”

The verses capture the indignation:

We want to appeal to the people
On behalf of the children
This holiday season, the Three Kings protest
Because the children of Puerto Rico
Don’t have time to play with the toys we bring

Mr. Santa Claus didn’t make it to Bethlehem
He’s taking advantage of the situation
If this doesn’t get fixed, the Three Kings are going on strike
Because the children of Puerto Rico
Don’t have time to play with the toys we bring

This is the Three Kings protest
This is the Three Kings protest

If we don’t reach a solution to the problem soon
We’re going to have to change it to December
And if that’s not possible, then schools will have to start in February

The Intersection of Capitalism, Colonialism and Culture

“La Protesta de Los Reyes” is an anthem against Puerto Rico’s colonial status. The song forces us to witness the threat of the Americanization of Christmas.

It is this continued acculturation that those like Calderón and De Jesús fear. The commercialization of Christmas, coupled with the perpetuation of Santa Claus, gives the impression that we want to mimic the United States. And sometimes a family’s financial situation sacrifices the Three Kings tradition.

Author and investigator of Afro-Puerto Rican folklore, Julia Cristina Ortiz Lugo, highlights this point.

“In my family, we celebrated both,” she said. “And while I don’t remember being told stories about Santa Claus —we never put cookies out for him— my sister and I more eagerly anticipated Christmas because that was when we received the best gifts. And if things weren’t going so well financially, Los Reyes suffered.”

That mentality also existed in Nilsa Aponte Irizarry’s home, albeit slightly different. Growing up in Trujillo Alto, she also fondly recalls celebrating las navidades.

“As kids, we got gifts from Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos. We couldn’t understand why school started so soon after the Three Kings,” she said. “That’s why I think our parents gave us better presents on Christmas.”

Reclaiming Our Identity

While mainstream media and retail businesses insist on shoving Santa Claus down our throats, many puertorriqueñxs remain steadfast in preserving our cherished holiday traditions. 

Patriotic folks like Haydee Miranda and Adrián Augusto Alfaro, founding members of La Casa de La Cultura Isabelina, Inc., share their commitment to honoring Los Reyes Magos. Since 1997, the northwest coastal town of Isabela has hosted La Fiesta de Reyes Isabelinos (The Isabela Reyes Festival), featuring Los Reyes Cantores Isabelinos (The Isabela Singing Kings). 

“For us, the holidays are all about celebrating our cultural and devotional traditions,” Augusto Alfaro said with pride. “Using folk instruments like el cuatro (four-string guitar) and el güiro, Los Reyes sing of peace, love, and understanding. On the spiritual side, we attend The Epiphany mass and celebrate The Act of Adoration (of the Birth of Baby Jesus).”

He also highlighted the community support network, saying that “the Festival is a culturally immersive experience where local artisans showcase their Reyes and nativity-themed crafts.”

Then, there’s Juana Díaz ,  the southern coastal town famous for its annual Caravana de Los Reyes, where residents can catch the Three Kings as they make their way around the town’s neighborhoods. These types of holiday events are essential for Puerto Ricans to instill unwavering pride in la cultura y herencia puertorriqueña.

As Ortiz Lugo reminds us, “There are many young Puerto Rican families becoming the custodians of our cultural traditions. They have been turning the festivity of Los Reyes into a strong symbol of Puerto Rican identity and a strategy of resistance and struggle.”

Her remarks remind me of the words of Don Rafael Cancel Miranda: “Santa Claus no es puertorriqueño, ni lo parece.”

Ultimately, it’s every Boricua’s responsibility to place our vibrant cultural customs as a priority above anything coming Gringolandia!


Lola Rosario is a spoken word poet and cultural storyteller based in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @lola_declama