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5 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Puerto Rico

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First of all, I must give thanks and credit to my friend Debbie Molina-Ramos at Legends of Puerto Rico for sending me some beautiful images of San Juan lit up with this season's the Christmas lights. It was Debbie's photos that inspired me to come up with five ways to celebrate Christmas in Puerto Rico. This goes beyond the typical -- Christmas dinners, exchanging gifts, and so on -- and instead focuses on squeezing a little extra holiday magic out of your time on the island.

1. Walk Around Old San Juan

Photo © Legends of Puerto Rico
For me, there's always something magical about walking the blue-tinged cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, but it's even more special during the Christmas season. Start your Christmas walking tour of Old San Juan at the Plaza de Armas, where you'll see City Hall draped under lights and San Juan's Christmas Tree twinkling at you. From here, walk down San Sebastián Street to Plaza de Colón, which is also beautifully arranged at this time of year.

Even better, take the Night Tales tour of Old San Juan. Debbie will take you into buildings that aren't open to the public at night, and treat you to a marvelous historic account of Puerto Rico's capital.

2. Visit Two Sacred Sites

Photo © Zain Deane
If you'd like your Christmas to be imbued with a bit of spiritual magic, there are two places in San Juan that tell of legends inspired by faith. The first is the Capilla del Cristo, or Chapel of Christ. The story at this small chapel at the end of Cristo Street is as follows: A young man was riding his horse down Cristo Street when he lost control of his ride. The horse leaped over the edge of the cliff at the road's end and into the open air. As they fell to their deaths, the man prayed to a Catholic saint to save him, and the saint granted his wish. (The horse wasn't so lucky.) In gratitude, the young noble caused the chapel to be built on this spot.

The other place where faith and legend intertwine is at the sculpture of La Rogativa. Located at the end of Caleta de las Monjas a short walk from the El Convento Hotel, the sculpture depicts a bishop with a torch held high, leading a procession. It commemorates one of Puerto Rico's most evocative legends. During the battle of 1797, the British forces under Sir Ralph Abercromby were attacking the city from the east. Facing a daunting force, the citizens of San Juan took to the streets in a religious procession. The British troops saw them from a distance and, believing them to be reinforcements arriving to help the Spanish garrison at Castillo San Cristóbal, withdrew, saving the city.

3. Attend a Misa del Gallo

At midnight on Christmas Eve, Puerto Ricans attend church for the Misa del Gallo, or Rooster's Mass. Often, churches have a lovely nativity scene on display for the midnight mass, which tends to be a solemn and yet festive occasion. If you're in Old San Juan, see if you can make it to the Misa del Gallo at the historic Catedral de San Juan on Cristo Street.

4. Donate to a Puerto Rican Charity

Puerto Rico has had its share of tough times in 2011. Most notable, of course, was Hurricane Irene, which caused millions of dollars in damage, left a million people without power and caused a State of Emergency to be declared for the island this past August.

Of course, you don't need a natural disaster to find people in need of help. This Christmas, if you want to give back to communities around the island that could use the help, here are a few local charities that would love to hear from you:

And above all, have a safe, fun-filled, and wonderful Christmas holiday!

5. Buy Yourself a "Pava"

The "pava," or straw hat, is a rustic accessory that is immediately associated with two things: the jíbaro culture of Puerto Rico (more on that here) and Christmas. Used by the jíbaros to block the strong Caribbean sun when they worked the land, these straw hats have found their way into the most Puerto Rican homes, where they are stashed away but usually come out during the holidays. It's not surprising to find people sporting pavas during a parranda (the 'Rican take on Christmas caroling).

You can find these hats at souvenir shops around the island, or you can order one online. Here's a good place to get your very own pava (and other Christmas goodies) for the season.

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