Christmas traditions have different flavors for immigrants

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman


Sandra Abarca, 59, moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico in 1983. Her mother Iris Arroyo, 80, followed a year later. Their holiday traditions came with them.

The family, siblings, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren always decorate the Christmas tree the night before Thanksgiving. The decorations include Puerto Rican flags, maracas, straw hats, the Puerto Rican percussion instrument, the guiro, and the cuatro, the lute-and-guitar-like national instrument of the territory.

Then the hard work, or fun, begins, depending on how you look at it. Abarca and Arroyo begin preparations for making pasteles, which is a very long process, and sometimes can take up to eight hours. Abarca said her family prepares stations to make the process of preparing the pasteles easier and faster.

First, the pork is cut into small pieces and cooked. Then, for the pasteles mixture, the pumpkin, yautia and green bananas are blended with pork broth until the mixture is smooth. Then the pork is marinated in the mixture with a Puerto Rican special seasoning.

Once cooked, the delicacy is placed on banana leaves and tied together with special pasteles paper. The complete celebratory Puerto Rican Christmas dinner has potato salad, macaroni salad, pork and rice with pigeon peas.

“Now, let’s make a drink,” Abarca said. That means a coquito, or “Little Coconut,” the traditional Christmas drink that originated in Puerto Rico.

Then comes the music. Parrandas are both the songs that are sung during the Christmas season and the names of the parties themselves, which can go all night. The parrandas are sometimes improvised but the same beginnings are always used:

Saludos, Saludos, Te vengo a saludar…
“Hello, hello, I come to say hi …”
“Esta es la parranda que yo te decía, salimos de noche y llegamos de día …”
“This is the party,
Of which I gave you the warning,
We start at night and finish back in the morning.”


“If you go to the houses of the Puerto Rican people living in the United States that’s what you’re going to see everywhere you look. We never stop the tradition,” Abarca said.

Food is also a large part of the Christmas tradition for Azumi Odunuga, 71, who taught food and nutrition to high school students in her native Nigeria before joining her daughter in West Philadelphia in 2017.

“It reminds us of what we do at home,” she said. “It takes us back down memory lane. How we have been celebrating it from youth until the years when we grow older. The parents used to celebrate it for us. Now we celebrate it for our own children and for our parents again.

“It doesn’t allow us to lose our memory of home. It keeps reminding us that we belong somewhere.”

One stalwart holiday dish is pounded yam, which she first peels and then boils and pounds with a mortar and pestle.

Odunuga gets some of her vegetables at grocery stores but goes to African specialty stores for her native foods. These include egusi, small protein-rich seeds; ogbono, which are also seeds; palm oil; iru, beans processed as condiments; and vegetables, ugu, oha, ukazi and bitter and jute leaves. These ingredients are used in a holiday soup.

Other African specialties served on holidays and different special occasions are jollof rice and a special snack, kuli, brownies made with peanuts grounded into a powder and mixed with vegetables, onions and salt and pepper.

All these delicacies are washed down with hibiscus and ginger drinks, made “to soothe our throats,” Odunuga said.

Back home in Nigeria, Odunuga said, during Christmas time, when there is a full moon, the children play in the town square by the moonlight. They sing and dance and beat native drums until they come home and go to bed around 9:30 p.m.

It’s different for Odunuga in America, when it is often too cold to be outside at Christmas.

Instead, Odunuga invites families from the local African community to visit her home for a traditional meal on Christmas. That includes her Muslim neighbors, who invite her to their homes to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr.

“Come spend Christmas with us,” Odunuga says to her fellow immigrants. “Come have lunch with us on Christmas day.” And the people come.


Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Health Milestones eNews

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