Thea L. Racelis: Puerto Rican Christmas means asopao and resistance

Visitors to the spontaneous Puerto Rican Christmas-season parties called parrandas often play the güiro, the instrument pictured here. Creative Commons / le Guiro

A pastor shares the traditions of her native island, where big parties with steaming bowls of delicious soup called asopao symbolize abundance, hope and resistance.

Christmas in Puerto Rico is not a day. It is a season. It is a commitment. It is a way of life.

Puerto Rican culture is known for abundance (national debt and failed bond payments notwithstanding). Even in the midst of poverty and darkness, we love to laugh, we love to party, and we love to eat.

Ours is an embodied and delicious faith. Ours is a culture of resistance. And resistance tastes like asopao, a rice-based soup served in Puerto Rican homes during Christmas.

Our Christmas season begins in early November and lasts until Feb. 2, when we celebrate the fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, or Candlemas. This comes from the Spanish celebration of light, and also honors the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the purification of Mary according to the law of Moses.

All through the season, we have a tradition of showing up at each other’s homes with a whole squad of people, unannounced, for music and good-natured fun. We just show up and have a big party, called a parranda.

Together, we wait for the arrival of light in the world, the birth of the Christ child, in community. No matter who won or lost the elections. Even if we’ve lost our job or are facing divorce or illness. We gather and we eat and we sing -- and we hope for light.

The parranda visitors come bearing instruments, which they pass around. This usually includes guitars, maracas, güiros -- notched, hollowed-out gourds played with a pick -- and cuatros. The cuatro, a 10-stringed instrument smaller than a guitar but similar in shape, is the national instrument of Puerto Rico.

When people show up at your house, hospitality requires that you feed them. This is a practice honored in cultures around the world, from Koreans who greet you by saying “Have you eaten?” to Italian grandmothers who fix you a third heaping plate of pasta.

In Puerto Rican parrandas, hospitality comes in a bowl.

Asopao is magical food. It is a rice-based soup made with chicken or shrimp, or pigeon peas for vegetarians. Really, you can throw in whatever protein you have on hand. It is not labor-intensive, and many hands can stir the pot. It can be cooked over an open fire or on a stovetop, a crockpot or a grill.

The glory of asopao is that when more people show up, you don’t have to worry; you just add some more water or broth and you can feed everyone.

Nothing is set aside; nothing is held back. Even if it’s the end of the month and payday seems an eternity away, you can throw together an asopao and everyone leaves with a belly full of goodness. Asopao is the great equalizer of Christmas, enjoyed by rich and poor alike.

Our culture’s economy of community can be summarized by the popular expression “Donde comen dos, comen tres” -- “where two can eat, three can eat.” Or in other words, there’s always room for one more.

My image of the kingdom of heaven is always a little bit like Christmas on my island. Bringing the light of Christ into the world includes food and music, laughter and bright lights.


Plaza de Armas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during Christmas. Flickr / Pasa

I think of parrandas and asopao when I hear of the bold ones who, in an uncertain time, followed a star, arriving at the site of a baby’s birth with gifts and perhaps sweet song, the hope-filled ones who followed the light instead of succumbing to the darkness of fear, oppression and injustice.

The book of Matthew calls them “wise” (2:1), and we hear how they went to Bethlehem in search of the holy babe. They showed up bringing the first parranda to the holy family, setting an example of action and resistance, teaching us important lessons about abundance.

They took a different route home and protected the young family and our unexpected Lord.

Our Christmas story is a story of resistance: resisting the powers of empire that sought to enslave and to destroy, resisting the powers of darkness and hopelessness, resisting division and exclusion. The journey to meet a baby is a journey we get to make together. We can meet fear and uncertainty with hope and asopao.

In these shifting times when the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported troubling increases in hate crimes, when political uncertainty is becoming the law of the land, with the threat of separation and deportation upon families, we need the nourishment of asopao.

We need the reminder that we wait as community, that even in the darkest of times, even in poverty and despair, God has given us a song to sing -- not as denial but as resistance.

We resist when we refuse to cower or hide or give in to fear. We resist when we decide to organize and to work and play together. And break bread. The ultimate act of hope, the celebration of our incarnate God, shared in a warm bowl of ricey soup.

We resist when we invite God into the mix and we accept the nourishment that multiplies loaves and fishes, that stretches out soup to feed the whole squad -- whether that is three wise ones and a holy family or half the neighborhood.

May your table be blessed and your resistance bring light this Christmas season.