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A Different Kind Of Christmas In Puerto Rico (PHOTOS)

Festivities of the season take a tropical turn in the Caribbean, where Puerto Rico's holiday party just won't quit.
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The sky is a deep tropical blue, rimmed with thunderheads and pierced by wind-surfing pelicans. Foliage is dense, deep green, bursting with unrepressed fecundity. It's a relief to come in out of the heat, stepping into the vast air-conditioned lobby with its tile and marble and views through broad windows to the Caribbean necklaced with surf. The smell of gingerbread fills the air.

Gingerbread? Opposite the registration desk at the Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa in Puerto Rico is a full-size gingerbread house. A life-size Santa's eyes twinkle behind his toy-maker's spectacles, and wooden soldiers stand guard as a fire blazes inside the cozy, and edible, cabin.

Okay, so the fire is a videotape, or perhaps a DVD, playing on a 32-inch screen nestled in the gingerbread fireplace. But the gingerbread walls are mortared with icing and crowned by gingerbread shingles. The cake cabin seems to invite children, perhaps Hansel and Gretel themselves, to explore the tempting hut.

The gingerbread house is not quite large enough to rent out, except perhaps in Manhattan. The big beachside hotel on Puerto Rico's north shore has 600 rooms and 72 suites, so perhaps they don't need to find a roomer for this studio, but it is certainly large enough to sleep in on Christmas Eve, with visions of sugarplums (and, doubtless, gingerbread) dancing in our heads.

For the past week we've been touring Puerto Rico, from the capital San Juan to Vieques Island offshore, on mid-December getaway. Much to our surprise every hotel lobby sports a spry Christmas tree, so densely festooned with ornamentation that any pine or spruce needles (real or otherwise) are obscured. It's as if being so far from the North Pole amplifies the need to celebrate the season, the yuletide spirit rising in inverse proportion to latitude.

Christmas in Puerto Rico is a big deal, bigger than in most places and bigger than you might imagine. A blogger for Forbes.com recently listed it among the world's top Christmas vacations; another for CNN did the same. It takes its place with Amsterdam's streets, Finnish theme parks and the tree at Rockefeller Center as must-sees on a Christmas tourist's list.

If what's missing is snow, reindeer and the building anticipation of a gift-giving glut, what's found is a party that lasts from the day after Thanksgiving to January 14, at least six full weeks of holiday spirit.

"Christmas is a huge celebration in Puerto Rico," said Fernando Rosado of the Rio Mar resort staff. "People just can't wait to get started once Thanksgiving is over."

But six weeks or more of celebration?

"We don't want the party to end!"

Perhaps it shouldn't be a complete surprise. After all, Christmas is a religious holiday, and Puerto Rico is heavily Catholic even now, 500 years after Pope Julius II authorized the first diocese in the Americas here. As much as 85% of today's population are Catholic, and another 8% are Protestant, who celebrate the holiday as well.

But this isn't simply a matter of cards, trees and presents. A Puerto Rican Christmas is acknowledged as the central holiday of the year, with a mind-boggling series of festivals, traditions and musical celebrations that power the island's social life at the very time of year that tourism to the Caribbean island begins to take off, the winter months.

This Christmas spirit prevailed throughout our journey not only with grandiose trees in lobbies and on patios but in street decorations, lights and adornments on houses and the sound of the distinctive aguinaldos, the lilting seasonal music most familiar to us through one of the standards of the season, "Feliz Navidad," by Puerto Rican guitarist Jose Feliciano.

Another holiday musical tradition unique to the island is the parranda, caroling in a Puerto Rican style. We experienced this in Old San Juan, when our walking tour of the Conquistador-era capital was interrupted by the accidental encounter with a group of a dozen or so hand-clapping, singing teens, guitars, horns and percussion instruments (maracas, tamboras, guiros), with a merrily prancing girl swirling her colorful skirt to the music.

The parranda is essentially the gift of music, given by someone to his friends or business associates, a moveable party that grows as the parade goes on. Its spontaneity and festivity is infectious -- and it should be, as one of the conditions of the parranda is that the recipient is often expected to return the favor.

Also in San Juan, fireworks were set off nightly, their booming explosions echoing off the tall buildings nearby. And it was more than a little weird to see haloed angels in Christmas lights hovering over the cobbled streets of the old Spanish capital, as if a Frank Capra movie were being adopted by Almodovar.

The momentum of the Christmas holiday builds, with specific traditional feasts and celebrations occurring from early December through Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), the second biggest party day of the season with drinking and dancing lasting till dawn. Dí­a de Navidad, Christmas day itself, is almost anticlimactic, especially if you've been up till dawn downing coquitos, coconut-rum eggnogs.

Things pick up a week later with Despedida de Año (New Year's Eve), when people clean houses and dress in new clothes to set a good example for the coming year. Friends gather, champagne is drunk and shortly before midnight 12 grapes are gathered, one to be eaten each second in the countdown to the new year. Supposedly if you can eat all 12, you'll have prosperity for the coming year. If you choke on them... presumably you'll need CPR.

As in many Catholic countries in the Spanish sphere, children are given gifts on January 6, El Dí­a de los Reyes (Epiphany), marking the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. But things don't end there: For the next eight days a tradition known as Octavas continues, during which parrandas are commonly repaid and the musical street celebration can be at its height.

It's as if they don't want the party to end in Puerto Rico, as I heard more than once. At least until the next one begins.

But back to that gingerbread house at Rio Mar. Although it was erected in the days immediately following Thanksgiving, preparation began at least a month earlier, when plans for the structure were drawn up and the wood frame for the house constructed.

Pastry chef Anibal Rodriguez, who with his staff of nine built the gingerbread house over an intense three week period, then gives over a full week to decorating the gingerbread house itself.

A big but gentle man -- as befits a chef who specializes in house-sized confections -- Rodriguez still seemed to be reeling from the effort of putting together the gingerbread house. He recited the statistics as if taking solace in the effort: The house was 9.5 feet wide by 11.5 feet long and over 12 feet tall. According to the staff records kept, this is the 12th year that the hotel has built a gingerbread house. The staff labored for 540 man hours, taking 16 hours a day for a week to decorate the structure.

(Hard to believe, but it's not the biggest gingerbread house in the world. According to Guinness, that honor goes to the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn., where in 2006 a 67-foot high cookie dough condo was built in 2006.)

I noticed some broken shingles, some missing confections. It seems the house needs to be periodically repaired. Kids, and perhaps adults, like to sneak tastes from the gingerbread siding.

Intrigued, I send a message to Rosado, asking if perhaps he could find out how many pounds of dough were used in the house's construction. He did me one better by sending my message on to Veronica Taveira, public relations manager for the Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa. And it was she who came up with the ingredients, as below:

  • Flour: 1,930 Pounds
  • Corn Syrup: 5 cases
  • Butter: 388 Pounds
  • Eggs: 11 cases
  • Granulated Sugar: 130 Pounds
  • Powdered Sugar: 396 Pounds
  • White Chocolate: 382 Pounds
  • Ground Ginger: 5 Pounds
  • Ground Cinnamon: 5 Pounds
  • Ground Cloves: 5 Pounds

As far as how to put those ingredients together, you can check out this recipe online and, using the servings calculator, multiply by 900. Serving sizes may vary.

Or you can go to Puerto Rico, have dessert professional Anibal Rodriguez set you up and enjoy one of the most festive Christmas seasons in the world. And work on your tan as well.

Christmas In Puerto Rico