By Elsa Fernández-Miralles

The Three Kings: protagonists of Puerto Rico’s celebration

What Santa Claus is to the U.S. mainland, the Three Kings are to Puerto Rico. Every year on Jan. 5, children in Puerto Rico collect grass and put it under their beds so that when the Three Kings visit the home and leave gifts they can also feed their weary camels.

Although the real reason for the popularity of the Fiesta de Reyes (Three Kings’ Day) in our local tradition is unknown, its influence is so strong that we have even coined the term reyar (to engage in Three King’s Day celebrations) as synonymous with folk songs in honor of the Magi accompanied by local instruments.

The Magi, also referred as the Wise Men or the Three Kings where, in the Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus of Nazareth, after his birth bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and mirrh. They are important figures in traditional Christmas celebrations and to Christianity itself.

The Promesa de Reyes (Three Kings’ Day Pledge) is still observed to this day. On the eve of Jan. 6, a devout Catholic makes a wish and vows to pay a promise. During the promise, a group of believers usually gathers and sings aguinaldos (local carols) whose main themes are Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Although aguinaldos are interspersed with prayers, the tone of the celebration is undeniably festive.

The event includes children and adults as the feast, in honor of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar—the Magi who found Jesus after following a guiding star—is open to all.

January 6 is an official holiday in Puerto Rico. Here are examples of how different municipalities celebrate Three Kings’ Day.

Juana Díaz – With nearly 130 years’ worth of tradition, Juana Díaz has become the capital of the Three Kings in Puerto Rico. In the 19th century, the town held a parade featuring the Three Kings and shepherds, followed by a Mass. After Mass, the Kings brought gifts to Baby Jesus. In 1983, when Spanish priest Valentín Echevarría arrived in town, the celebration regained its religious tone with an ecclesiastic theater presentation followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. Juana Díaz’s current Three Kings continue traveling to several locations throughout the world, including the Vatican.

Isabela – The Feast of Isabela’s Kings (also known as Isabela’s Singing Kings) is coordinated by the Casa de la Cultura Isabelina (Isabela’s House of Culture) and is known for the Kings’ beautiful costumes and their message of faith, hope, and charity. The two-day event is held Jan. 5 and on the Epiphany (Jan. 6) and consists of four different celebrations. First, the Kings arrive in town and a Kings’ Promise is held.

Then, they parade to the town square so they can meet with Baby Jesus. Later they worship Jesus and bring Him gifts as representatives of the people. Lastly, a town festival is held.

Las Marías – Every Three Kings’ Day, local children and even visitors await the distribution of gifts at a prearranged location. At the event, there are bounce houses, snacks and candies, clown shows, and live music.

Guaynabo – The Trulla de Reyes (Three Kings Caroling) is an event that takes trullas (caroling parties) through different town sectors. Shows featuring troubadours and other performers are held at a designated location.

San Juan – For years, the distribution of Three Kings’ Day gifts for children was conducted at La Fortaleza, the Puerto Rico governor’s residence, and now takes place in several municipalities. Ask your hotel concierge about the designated locations for 2016.

Photos: Supplied

If you decide to spend the Holidays in Puerto Rico or if your visit coincides with our long festive season, prepare to taste Puerto Rican cuisine’s most delicious dishes—a great fusion of flavors and colors from all the cultures that have had an influence on our island.

Our local cuisine is a blend of customs and traditions that has earned Puerto Rico a top echelon among renowned dining destinations. Our island is a destination where you’ll find excellent food—and if it happens to be Holiday fare then you are in for a real treat!

Although traditional dishes are available year-round, they are the rage during the Holiday season so local families as well as restaurants devote special attention to their preparation. Island residents expect these delicacies at all their Holiday events and tourists just can’t get enough of them!p90-cred-bonderenko

Rice with pigeon peas is a must in our Holiday menu, preferably served with our tasty pasteles. Puerto Rican pasteles bear some resemblance to Mexican or Cuban tamales and other foods wrapped in leaves. This gastronomic treat— made with plantain or yucca “dough” wrapped over pieces of pork or chicken and lots of criollo (local) seasonings and then wrapped in a banana leaf—is boiled and served piping hot.

Rice with pigeon peas and pasteles are served with local cuisine’s crown jewel: the incomparable spit-roasted pig. The traditional Puerto Rican cooking method uses two Y-shaped hooks on which a rod holding a whole pig is placed and then cooked for hours over a bed of burning wood, turning the rod at intervals for even roasting.

The pig is seasoned with garlic, salt, oregano, a hint of pepper, and a couple of additional ingredients depending on the family cook’s or restaurant chef’s particular preference. Other seasonal treats include the savory morcillas (fried blood sausage), some of which have a delightful hint of hotness; guineítos en escabeche (pickled green bananas); yucca with local mojo sauce; asopao de gandules (hearty pigeon pea soup); and fritters like meat-filled alcapurrias, codfish-based bacalaítos, and rice flour almojábanas.

Holiday desserts include marzipan and arroz con dulce, which is made with rice, coconut milk, and raisins. Coconut is the main ingredient in other delightful desserts like tembleque and majarete, as well as in our beloved coquito, an eggnog like beverage that is made with coconut milk or cream, condensed and evaporated milks, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and white rum to taste.

p-90-cred-bonderenkoWhat dishes do tourists prefer? “The mofongo [fried green plantain, mashed, and often filled with meat, poultry or seafood], closely followed by all our local fritters,” said Luis Castillo, executive chef at Hotel El Convento, who prepared the mouth-watering dishes showcased in this story. “When it comes to drinks, there’s no denying it… coquito is hugely popular during the Holidays,” he admits, also pointing out that Puerto Rican cuisine is unrivaled because it is well-seasoned but not spicy or hot, which makes it suitable for everyone’s palate.

“Even though many local specialties are associated with the Holiday season our guests always ask for them. Therefore, I combine them with unexpected products at my chef tasting tables. I can prepare a skirt steak with pasteles and an oxtail stew, some cod raviolis with avocado or perhaps pork tenderloin medallions instead of pit-roasted pig,” Castillo adds.

A new generation of chefs is reinterpreting our local dishes, which is precisely what is featured during a weekend-long food festival called Saborea Puerto Rico—to be held on April 7-10 at El Escambrón Beach in San Juan. For more information, go to If you can’t wait then don’t miss Old San Juan’s “SOFO” Culinary Fest (787-723-7080) on December 3-6, when eateries on Fortaleza St. offer special prices on their dishes.