Christmas caroling is something of a lost tradition in the U.S., but the Puerto Rican version, called “la parranda,” is alive and well. As the holiday approaches, Boricuas grab their instruments and a bottle or two (or three or four...) of rum, gathering in groups to make a roving band of troubadours. They show up uninvited—but always welcome—at the homes of friends and acquaintances, spreading the holiday spirit by serenading whoever dwells there with popular songs.
If you're lucky enough to have a group of parranderos show up at your home, know that you're not just a passive recipient of their good cheer. You're expected to play host or hostess, opening the door of your home and inviting the parranderos in. Unlike the tradition of inviting Christmas carolers in for hot chocolate or cider so they can warm up before continuing on their merry way—after all, the average temperature in Puerto Rico in December is 84 degrees—the tradition of inviting parranderos in is to share some of the most essential experiences of the holiday, boricua-style, with your gente.
Here's what you need to know if you want to experience a parranda, whether you're a reveler or a hostess.
Gather the necessary instruments.
A parranda isn't a parranda without music and instruments, which are like people: the more, the merrier. Jared Romey, author of the book Speaking Boricua and founder of the website Speaking Latino, identifies nine instruments common to the parranda: the pandereta, a tambourine; the güiro; maracas; panderos (tambourine-like instruments, but without the jingles); palitos; the cuatro (a Puerto Rican guitar); a guitar; trumpets; and the tambor, a large drum. You may not have all of these instruments at your disposal but the more noisemakers you have, the more lively your parranda will be.
Learn the classic parranda songs.
As with caroling, the parranda has a standard songbook, with tunes ranging from the religious to the raucous. Many of the songs central to the parranda are unique to Puerto Rico, speaking to the culture of the island and its unique beauty, as well as narrating holiday traditions. Romey has a list of these songs on his site and, of course, YouTube is a useful resource; not only can you learn some of the tunes, you can see and get a feel for the spirit of the parranda itself.
Gather your crew.
The people who join you for your parranda, also known as a “trulla” or “asalto de Navidad” (literal translation: “a Christmas assault”), should be chosen carefully; they can be any age, but they need to possess certain character traits. Above all, they should be fun-loving, with no need to go anywhere or do anything else on the night you set out to parrandear. You want people in your crew who will get into the spirit: they don't have to be great singers or musicians, but they have to sing and play and dance with gusto, a whole group of Pied Pipers who can successfully spread cheer around the pueblo.
Plan your route.
The “asalto” aspect of the parranda is one of its key features, you want to surprise neighbors or friends by your arrival. To do this, you'll want to determine where you're going to start your parranda, and plan to show up at that person's door no earlier than 10 PM. Gather in a crowd around the door or in the patio, and then let loose with your Christmas descarga.
Be the consummate hostess.
When parranderos come calling, you don't want to be that neighbor... the one who has nothing to offer the revelers sharing the gifts of their music and alegría. Stock the larder now so you'll be prepared just in case.
You'll want a few bottles of rum (preferably Bacardí or Don Q, both of which are made in Puerto Rico) and coquito (don't call it eggnog!), as well as delicious eats. Standard parranda fare includes all the favorite boricua holiday dishes: lechón and tamales; the latter are easy to make in bulk in advance and keep at the ready. A pot of arroz con gandules is never a bad idea, either.
If you're really not a DIY cook, you'll at least want to have some sweet snacks on hand, such as turrón or the classic guava and cheese (click here for a bonus how-to video!). And if you want to give the impression that you know how to do more than open a box and put sweets on a tray, keep a block of guava paste and one of cream cheese in your fridge; when parranderos show up, slice and set them out for a simple and delicious traditional dessert. A bowlful of almonds and assorted nuts are also a good accompaniment.
If you've received parranderos in your home, you're expected to ply them with the above-mentioned food and drink for an hour or longer. But once they're ready to move on, your job isn't over... and don't plan to escape to the kitchen for clean-up. You're now supposed to join in the fun by accompanying the parranderos to their next home. This can go on until the wee hours of the next morning. If you happen to be the last host, your flagging parranderos will hope you've got a pot of asopao de pollo bubbling away.
Just because you live on the U.S. mainland doesn't mean you can't parrandear. Singing, fun, food, drink, and hospitality-- these are the key elements of a parranda. If you're not quite up for organizing one yourself, there are some cultural groups and museums around the U.S. that organize community parrandas. Among them are New York City's El Museo del Barrio and Philadelphia's Taller Puertorriqueño.