Families continue Christmas traditions from native countries

DeBry family wants their five children to enjoy the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas as much as they did when he was growing up. 

The five children of the DeBry family clunk around in their wooden shoes until its time to line them up in anticipation of the arrival of Sinterklaas. “We set out all our shoes and he puts goodies in them,” explained one of the kids. After the children are herded into another room, the DeBry parents, begin filling the shoes with authentic Dutch chocolate. It’s a tradition that have celebrated since their childhood, and have memories of growing up with the Dutch traditions, food and songs of the holidays. Although they are third-generation Americans, every December 5, Sinterklaas visits their home. Their ancestors are all from Holland and Germany they said. 

In the Netherlands, on the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child who has been good in the past year. According to tradition, Sinterklaas wears a red bishop’s dress and rides a white horse over the rooftops. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. He’s a helper, similar to elves. He’s also the one who keeps the kids in line. Children put their shoes out, along with a carrot or some hay for Sinterklaas’ horse. The next day, they’ll find chocolate in their shoes, supposedly thrown down the chimney by Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas.

Because they recently traveled to Holland, they returned with enough goodies to fill their kids’ wooden shoes for days, chocolate coins, chocolate cookies, chocolate letters, chocolate eggs, gingerbread and stroopwafels (syrup waffles). Although they celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas, they also celebrate Christmas in the traditional way.

For a few years, Humberto and his friends celebrated the true Puerto Rican tradition of parranda, Christmas caroling Puerto-Rican style. During a parranda, friends gather late in the evening to go from one house to another singing and playing traditional songs. But because the Hispanic population is so spread out in the city, they had to travel in cars instead of on foot, and they kept getting lost in the dark. Humberto, who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in the US for 22 years, along with his family and friends still celebrate the parranda, but they contain it to one house now.

“A parranda is when a group of friends get together in one house and the friends, the musicians, select a number of friends they’re going to visit that night. They will go out as a group. It’s supposed to be a surprise,” he said. “They’ll come to their door and start playing. The folks will acknowledge them by turning the light on. They’ll sing some more and the door will open and the people will go in, and they’ll be greeted with food and refreshments and they’ll sing more.”

Parrandas start late in order to surprise and wake the sleeping friends. Some are prepared, sometimes slight hints are given. The musicians are served a traditional holiday beverage called coquito and made of coconut milk and rum. They’ll also be served arroz con dulce, a dessert made of rice cooked with coconut milk, sugar and cinnamon; and pasteles, made using mashed green bananas where the dough is filled with meat, potatoes and spices and wrapped in the leaves of the banana tree. One tradition is the family who receives the party at midnight will prepare chicken soup for the folks to gain strength. Parrandas usually start in early December, with musicians visiting four or five houses a night, and continue until January 6, Three Wise Men’s Day, also known as Three Kings Day and the Epiphany.

In Puerto Rico, children traditionally receive gifts from their parents on Christmas Day. “The presents were never put under the tree,” Humberto said. “The presents appeared on Christmas. When I grew up, they just magically appeared on that day so it was a big thing to wake up. We would wake up at four o’clock in the morning. It was the excitement of, ‘The toys are here. The presents are here.’ When our children were little, we did that.” Presents from other relatives aren’t given until January 6, he said. Puerto Rico, being part of the United States, does recognize Santa Claus; although, it can be tough to explain to Puerto Rican children why Santa travels through their snowless, warm country on a sled.

The main Christmas celebration in Mexico is the posada, a religious procession that reenacts the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus. In Mexico, posadas are a series of visits traditionally paid to different friends during the days before Christmas in which the celebrants go from house to house looking for shelter.

Morales family, including their three young children, participate in a posada every Christmas Eve, although on a smaller scale. Instead of moving from house to house, they contain their celebration to one house. “Our family gets together, my sisters and my parents and my dad’s family,” they said. “There’s about 30 of us. We just do it at the one house where we’re celebrating Christmas. In Mexico, they go house to house. Posadas last a week to 10 days, traditionally. In Mexico, I think they do a different house every night. That’s why it’s more than a week.” Morales, grew up with the traditions their parents brought from Mexico.

The posada celebration continues after the participants are finally admitted into a house. “After they give us a place to stay, you have baby Jesus in the blanket and everybody is around him, and we sing. We do that first and then we open up gifts. After we sing, we have candy called colacion. It’s candy that kind of looks like rocks because it’s all different shapes and different colors and different flavors. We may have tostadas and pozole, it’s hominy in a special broth. You can use pork meat or chicken. A lot of places will serve different kinds of punch,” they said.

Morales’ family will open presents from family on Christmas Eve, and Santa leaves presents for the youngsters to open on Christmas Day. In Mexico, it’s more tradition for the Three Wise Men to bring gifts on January 6. You’re supposed to put a shoe by the door and the Three Wise Men bring presents.