Guest Letter from Jonathan: A Puerto Rican American Christmas

I am pleased to present our first guest letter on Christmas, by my friend Jonathan. Jonathan is a devout Catholic, but has taken a bizarre interest in the Jewish roots of his faith, to a point that even you, Josep, would start shaking your head in disbelief. Living in NYC, he has been thoroughly exposed to Jewish culture, and knows more Talmudic texts, Hebrew, and Yiddish than any Hispanic Catholic should. (He’s the one I was joking with about the Pope. I often jokingly accuse him of being a Judaizer, threatening to report him to the Inquisition. He takes it very well.)

We have had many memorably amusing discussions concerning our religions. Such as that time when I complained on Facebook about finding granola bars in my purse on Passover, since oats are one of the five grains, meaning it was seriously hardcore chametz…

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Now, before we proceed to his letter I must warn you that his terminology might be a little hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Catholic concepts. I tried to get him to tone it down, but what can I do, once you get him talking about Jesus he can’t help himself!

Okay, now that I’ve finished embarrassing him, here’s Jonathan. A joyful Three Kings’ Day to those who celebrate!


 

Dear Josep,

I pray that you are well by the grace of God when you so happen upon this letter.

My name is Jonathan. I am not quite sure how I came to have the pleasure of Daniella’s acquaintance. I can only assume that it was through her husband Eitan’s FB page, and our mutual interest in the religious climate of Inquisition era Spain.

I am a Latin Rite Catholic of Puerto Rican descent born and raised in “the diaspora” in New York City.

The Christmas season, or more appropriately the season of Nativity has come upon us once again. As you are more than likely aware of, this is the time of year when Christians the world over commemorate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Contrary to popular belief the Christmas season itself begins on 25 December and ends on 2 February with the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord/The Purification of Mary which commemorates the Jewish rite of pidyon ha-ben (The Redemption of the First Born), of which our Lord was obligated to having been born under the Law of Moses. However for our purposes I will be focusing on Christmas as observed in my household.

Traditionally speaking, Christmas in my family would officially be ushered in with “La Misa de Gallo” (Translated literally it means “The Mass of the Cock/Rooster”), but in the English speaking world it is more commonly known as Midnight Mass. This mass commemorates the shepherds who kept vigil til dawn upon our Saviour’s birth. The reference to the cock in the Spanish name is thus an allusion to the cock’s crow at dawn when the Shepherd’s vigil ended. Most places however do not observe the Midnight vigil in this manner, but opt for a liturgy which ends at midnight, or begins at midnight. As I’ve gotten older I have opted to instead observe Christmas day mass on the morning of 25 December as I prefer the more hushed and solemn tone for personal reflection on the day’s mystery.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that what is of true importance is the historical and metaphysical reality we’re presented with during Nativity. Namely in that the very God became as one of us by partaking of our humanity (whilst preserving His divinity hypostatically), and radically elevated what it means to be human. Whether from East, or West, from eternity was the nation of Israel chosen as the center of the World to draw man to His center. To call man to a new way of being by means of participation in Christ’s Sonship. The Nativity is not merely an event that occurred 2,000 years ago, but one which takes place daily in our lives (that’s true of the Resurrection as well).

I don’t necessarily think the latter is a deviation from my upbringing, but if anything it paved the way for my preference for those respites into solitude and silence during the holidays.

Christmas day is relatively quiet in my home, with gift giving taking a back seat to the festive foods particular to the season, as well as the time spent with family. While I was born and raised in the US mainland, my family managed to preserve a number of cultural traditions particular to my Puerto Rican heritage. However, as with all communities in the diaspora, there is a give and take between the practices of the homeland and the new nation of residence, with a synthesis of sorts resulting between them. Amongst the more “American” derived practices was the decorating of a pine/fir tree (in my case synthetic) with all manner of lights and ornaments for Christmas. While I was raised with the practice from my youth (my mom having crafted an entire set of really beautiful ornaments at one point), this was not held in the same esteem as it may have been amongst some of my fellow compatriots and co-religionists. The tree would go up the day after Thanksgiving without any of the fondness or formalities associated with tree trimming, or its appropriateness or lack thereof within the season of Advent (the penitential period observed by Western Christians prior to Christmas which calls to mind not only Christ Jesus’ first coming, but also His Second Coming). Nevertheless, it was never really a central part of my upbringing, but something that we did because we lived in the States.

Jonathan's Christmas tree this year
Jonathan’s Christmas tree this year

One peculiarity associated with our Christmas decorating was collecting pine needles which would be left in small bundles at the foot of the tree. These bundles of needles were intended for the reindeer who pulled Santa Claus’ sleigh (Not that Santa Claus figured much into how I observed Christmas growing up. The figures of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas were only vaguely associated with one another, even if the occasional “Behave or Santa Claus won’t bring you anything for Christmas” was uttered.). This practice might seem peculiar given that most families leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, but in reality it was a synthesis of my family’s traditional observance of “Dia de Reyes,” known in English as “Epiphany”/“Three Kings’ Day.” (This feast is observed on 6 January and commemorates the visit of three wisemen/kings from the East who observed the Messiah’s Star from their respective homelands to adore the new born King of Israel.)

Traditionally on the eve of the feast, children would build small feeding troughs in shoe boxes filled with hay/grass (representing the manger that the Christ Child was laid in) and leave it beneath their bed in which the Three Kings would leave small gifts for the children of the house. The hay/grass within the “manger” was meant to provide sustenance to the camels (or horses) who had journey from the East with the Three Kings. A small bowl filled with water would likewise be left out that the camels might quench their thirst. Likewise in place of milk and cookies for Santa, a shot of rum would be left out for the Three Kings that they might share in the joy and merriment of the newborn King, Emmanuel, for He is truly God amongst us. However, in my case some of the traditions associated with Epiphany came to be transferred and adapted within the context of Christmas Eve. Growing up there was nevertheless an effort to preserve “Dia de Reyes” in my household by means of withholding the exchange of some gifts until Epiphany. As I got older and my desire for receiving gifts waned, so too did some of these practices, though in essence they got me much closer to contemplation of the metaphysical reality presented by the season of Nativity, the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus.

In Puerto Rican households during Christmas you will invariably a feast composed of various festive foods. However no Christmas table is complete without the following staples: roast pork shoulder (pernil), yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules), and pasteles. Likewise, no Christmas is complete without coquito. However, if any Puerto Rican had to choose which of these ubiquitous staples reminds them most of Christmas, without a doubt they would say pasteles and coquito.

Coquito is a coconut cream based egg nog like beverage enjoyed throughout the holiday season. Traditionally it is made with overproof rum (pitorro). Every which family has their own closely guarded recipes passed down from generation to generation. Coquito like sofrito (A paste made of various herbs and spices used as a base for most traditional stews, sauces, soups, and rice dishes in Puerto Rican cuisine) is just one of those recipes you do not share with people outside of the family. In some way each generation is bound to the other through the dishes we share at the table. This is a common theme throughout most of our family gatherings, but in particular at Christmas time.

As mentioned previously, no Puerto Rican table is complete at Christmas without pasteles. Pasteles are like their more well-known counterparts tamales, but are comprised of an entirely different masa (“dough”), comprised of starchy tubers or made from unripe green bananas. This masa is placed upon a banana/plantain leaf which has been cut and slightly wilted, and greased with a bit of annato infused oil/lard, and is later filled with a stewed pork meat filling that includes capers, olives, and in some families raisins and almonds. The banana leaf enclosing the masa and meat filling are then folded into rectangular cakes and wrapped in parchment paper, tied in paired bundles with butcher’s twine, to then be frozen,. When the time comes to consume them they are taken out of the freezer and placed in salted boiling water for about an hour when they fully cooked and are then ready to serve. It might be laborious, but it is indeed a labor of love that I will always remember fondly, because of how it brings together generations of women in my family who have passed down the “sacred art.”

Amidst all the wonderful smells of foods being prepared in the kitchen for Christmas, none of them compares to the sight of generations of family matriarchs seated at the table in the kitchen preparing pasteles. Some of them grating the tubers and other vegetables for the masa, while others cut the leaves and parchment paper, and another the cords to bind the pasteles. Once all were seated at the table, you could hear all manner of catching up between them all. Conversations about current events, general catching up about friends and family, and the occasional argument between my mom and aunts, all under the supervision of my grandmother. On occasion when one of us kids would stumble into the kitchen to talk with our moms, we’d request customized pasteles which our moms would set aside for us when it came time to eat. (I have a particular fondness for green banana based masa over cassava (yuca) based masa, and like to vary between the standard pork filling, and the pork fillings with raisins and almonds.) If we were really brave, we would try our hand at helping with the wrapping and preparation, only to later be kicked out of the kitchen for taking too long to make just one, or some other mishap. To this day I am amazed at the speed at which my mom is able to make them, without there being a loss in quality. We either helped too little, or did not help enough; we could never win! However, in many ways it was probably a way for my aunts, mother, and grandmother to reminisce about the past with one another.  Any of us kids who really took the time to listen as they prepared the pasteles would learn a lot about our moms and grandmother when our moms were just children.

Of course while our moms were in the kitchen, that meant that the men were in the living room having a few beers, or sipping on a bit of coquito chatting amongst themselves, and occasionally rough housing one of us kids. My cousins and I usually stuck to my room to play with our Christmas gifts and just catch up in general. Nothing out of the ordinary for us, just the usual, kids being kids. The occasional argument might break out over having to share with my cousins, but again, who hasn’t been in that very position when your cousins are on your home turf? But I digress. As my cousins and I got older, and our common interests diverged, we each came to a more mature relationship amongst ourselves.

As cited previously, what binds us together during the holiday is when we come together to eat. It wasn’t so much a formal affair wherein we all sat around a table to share a meal, but rather it was a more festive affair with extra chairs set about in the living room, some people on the sofa, other on the love seat etc., each being served by one of our moms, or as we got older, serving ourselves the foods that were in the kitchen. Each of us sitting around, with music in the background, just enjoying each other’s company.

When I was younger, I remember on more than one occasion during family gatherings being made to dance with my mom, that I might learn the dances of my homeland. One of my cousins and I would turn it into a competition of sorts between us, dancing with our moms who taught us the steps of the dance.

As the music waned, and people brought their dishes to the kitchen sink, stories of Christmases past emerged along with family stories and jokes. This was usually my favorite time with my family. It was the one time of the year when without prodding everything you ever wanted to know about your family just happened to fall right into your lap without prodding on your part. The deceased members of family though not present in body came to be present in spirit, especially those family members that I had never had the fortune to meet. Somehow in those remembrances of repasts we were all together again. Of course in God’s mind the past, present, and future do not exist, so in some way it was like experiencing a foretaste of eternity unbeknownst to us. However that shouldn’t surprise me, considering that Emmanuel, the Kingdom of God born and present amongst us, has by His incarnation (which by our baptism we become partakers of in dying with Him and being born anew with Him) unites heaven and earth. Those who have passed from this life and are alive in Him thus remain ever present in our midst through the Communion of Saints. The Saints being those who sanctified the world by virtue of their bearing and birthing Him within it. This in turn orients my gaze towards eternity.

The mystery of the Incarnation is ever present and pervades all things, but at Nativity (or more appropriately the Adventide vigil) we meditate on the incarnate Emmanuel, during His first and His eventual second coming. The Paschal Babe who has come, has died, has risen, and will come again to judge the living and the dead at the culmination of the ages.

This brings me to my final point of reflection on the mystery of the Nativity, namely what have I done to make the Kingdom of God present in this world?

I think my family has done their part in forming me within the various folk forms and traditions that facilitate that task. I am by no means perfect and have much room for improvement, but nonetheless I believe that amidst the chaos of the world I too can keep vigil towards that Silent Night of the eternal Yerushalayim.

May the peace of the Christ be with you and yours this day and all days.

Happy Christmas!

-Jonathan

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