San Sebastian Festival
A celebration that marks the end of a long festive holiday season, the Puerto Rican Mardi Gras
Christmas is not over: at least not in La Isla Del Encanto. After Christmas Day, Puerto Rico and most of Latin America celebrates Epiphany, or Día De Los Reyes Magos, on January 6th. After more gift-giving, Puerto Ricans celebrate what they call Octavitas the week after - or some of the last festivities of their long Christmas, which start right after Thanksgiving in November. The truth of the matter, though? The official end of the holidays in the Boricua calendar is the San Sebastian Festival.
Typically celebrated on the third week of January (Thursday - Sunday), the annual 4-day festival takes place in and around Calle San Sebastián in Old San Juan. Many of the historical cobblestone streets are closed to motorized vehicles; artisans and food vendors set up shop; local musicians and general public alike bring their instruments and sing bomba and plena numbers. In a nutshell: all aspects of Puerto Rican culture convene in what most regard as the best festival of the island. This is the perfect crash course for tourists eager to learn more about the Indian Taíno, African, and Spanish heritage.
History of the San Sebastian Festival
San Sebastián, or Saint Sebastian, was an early saint and Christian martyr - one of the many victims of the persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian in the Third Century AD. As a Spanish (Catholic) colony, the day of Saint Sebastian was commemorated with a feast on January 20th.
The first-ever San Sebastian Festival only lasted one day (the feast day) and was organized by one of the priests of the San José Church, which is located right on Calle San Sebastián in Old San Juan, in the 1950’s. However, the festival wouldn’t be popular until after a hiatus of about 20 years.
In the 1970’s, the San Sebastian Festival was kick-started once more and extended to a 4-day affair full of art, live mulato music, dancing, and mestizo food. People line up on balconies, bring their instruments, buy local crafts, and party until the wee hours of the morning. Think of it as the Puerto Rican Mardi Gras, but with a mix of African, Taíno Indian, and Spaniard traditions instead.
San Sebastian Festival: The Setup + Travel Tips
Nowadays, the typical SanSe (nickname of the festivities) setup is as follows:
- Each day of the San Sebastian Festival is divided in 2 parts: Day and night festivities. Most colorful parades, cabezudos, and costumes march down the cobblestone streets in the afternoon (approx. 5pm), making it the ideal time to bring the entire family. After sunset, college students start to pour in with their wonderful instruments, lighting up their streets with plena and bomba music and everyone walking by joins the party!
- After around 8 PM, the live (free!) concerts tend to begin. The common venue is Plaza Quinto Centenario, but may vary from year to year.
- Shopping may be done either during the day or night. However, vendors may rotate, so if you find something you like, buy it then.
- Along Calle San Sebastián and (mainly) El Cuartel de Ballajá, local artists and artisans sell their crafts and paintings, including jewelry, pottery, and handmade wooden sculptures. However, it is recommended you walk all over Old San Juan, as they may set shop anywhere they find a space!
- Drinking on the streets is usually permitted, but along certain perimeters. The police erect barricades and clearly mark the areas, so you shouldn’t worry. Needless to say, the specials are incredible and the atmosphere is extremely local.
- The San Sebastian Festival has a “curfew” (Thurs. & Sun: Midnight; Fri. & Sat: 1am) and it is strictly enforced but don’t fret! The party is usually taken into bars and clubs throughout Old San Juan, as their business hours are way past the festival curfew anyway. There, the locals take their instruments and traditional music (+ drink specials) continue into the wee hours.
- Public transportation stops running at 1am on Thursady & Sunday and 2am on Friday & Saturday. Plan accordingly! Keep local taxi numbers handy if you plan to party in Old San Juan after the San Sebastian Festival curfew.
San Sebastian Festival 2013 Itinerary
Maria Alexandra Laborde has lived, studied and traveled extensively throughout Puerto Rico, the Middle East & North Africa. She shares her knowledge and love for the Arab world through stories, travel guides, and photo essays on her niche blog Travel The Middle East. Also, Maria is the author of LatinAbroad: Cultural Travel Blog, where she shares cultural encounters and advice after traveling to more than 20 countries across 4 continents. Follow her on Google+, Facebook and Pinterest!
Photo Credits: My Guide Puerto Rico