When a 25-year-old guitarist named José Montserrate Feliciano García, from the historic Puerto Rican town of Lares (birthplace of the country’s 19th century movement for independence from Spain) recorded an album of Christmas music released by RCA Victor Latino in 1970, he did a number of things.
First, thanks mainly to the extremely simple but catchy title track, “Feliz Navidad,” he vaulted to worldwide fame as a recording artist.
Second, in the public perception of his artistry, he became trapped by that success: most music fans are unaware of Feliciano’s breathtaking mastery as a virtuoso of the guitar (much as pop singing success obscured the vast musical talents of artists like Nat Cole and George Benson).
And third and most importantly in this season, young José Feliciano made the Christmas greeting ‘Feliz Navidad’ one of the small handful of Spanish phrases that virtually every English speaker—not to mention speakers of other languages around the world—knows.
But Feliz Navidad is not the only greeting widely exchanged in the Spanish-speaking world at this time of year. The more ecumenical Felices Fiestas (Happy Holidays) is also commonplace. This may come as a surprise to some who see—and lament—in ‘Happy Holidays’ a bland securalization that they imagine to be a recent departure from a more comfortably dominant Christian culture in the United States, and who might assume that Hispanic/Latin American culture has not experienced a similar trend.
In truth, Felices Fiestas and Feliz Navidad were more or less equivalent in popularity for roughly the first half of the 20th century, with the more overtly religious greeting actually becoming much more widely used since roughly 1970 or 1975. At least, this is the picture that emerges from the literature that Google has scanned and gathered into the remarkable corpus accessible through the Ngram Viewer. In this diagram, Feliz Navidad is in blue and green, andFelices Fiestas in red and yellow.
The phrase Felices Fiestas (Happy Holidays) is not even necessarily secular. After all, the root of Engl. ‘holidays’ is ‘holy days’, and Span. fiestas can refer to religious observances too. For example, a 19th century religious polemic by the Spanish cleric Valentín Mañosa y Arboix, Nuevo triunfo de la verdad católica [The New Triumph of Catholic Truth], proposes the following greeting to be used with fellow Christians one believes to be theologically in error:
“Deseo a V. y compañeros felices fiestas, y que el divino Jesús con su luz eterna disipe las tinieblas del error en que, por desgracia, están Vds. envueltos.” [I wish you and your colleagues happy holidays, and that the divine Jesus with his eternal light may dispel the darkness of error by which, unfortunately, all of you are surrounded.]
Though it must have been satisfying to compose, Father Valentín’s formula has, somehow, not quite caught on as a popular holiday greeting.
In addition to Navidad and las Navidades, Spanish has another way of referring to Christmas, namely las Pascuas de Navidad. The word pascua is most familiar, and most commonly used, for Easter. It derives, through Latinpascha and Greek πάσχα, ultimately from the Hebrew pesach (Passover).
But pascua has an additional meaning, registered this way by the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española [Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy]: “Cada una de las solemnidades del nacimiento de Cristo, del reconocimiento y adoración de los Reyes Magos y de la venida del Espíritu Santo sobre el Colegio Apostólico” (Each of the ecclesiastical festivities of the birth of Christ, His recognition and adoration by the Magi, and the coming of the Holy Spirit over the Apostles.”) In a word: Christmastide.
So, Felices Pascuas de Navidad, or Felices Pascuas for short, is another greeting of the season, particularly widespread in Spain.
Of course, expressing ’Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Holidays,’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ in Spanish as Feliz Navidad, Felices Fiestas, or Felices Pascuas de Navidad is only part of the broad act of cultural translation that this season brings. The imagery of snow, while more and more a wistful memory in parts of the U.S., is downright fantastic in most of Latin America. There, the reality of Christmastime is summer, swimming trunks, and fireworks—in Lima or Buenos Aires, the Christmas Eve night sky is like a Stateside Fourth of July.
There are other cultural subtleties, as well. Papá Noel and Santa Claus (sometimes spelled Santa Clos) rival one another for the name of the Polar deliverer of gifts. Gifts are generally opened at, or just after, midnight, as opposed to Christmas morning most typical in the U.S. More significantly, the traditional procession of Las Posadas, whose observance is now limited mainly to Mexico and parts of Central America, reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.
And in large parts of the Spanish-speaking world, El Día de Reyes (literally ‘Day of the Kings,’ or Epiphany) on Jan. 6, persists as a more traditional Christmastide celebration. Children place shoes (or, in some countries, boxes) outside their doorway as a receptacle for the Wise Men’s presents. Straw and water are left out to feed the camels—we can sense an echo of this custom in the setting out of milk and cookies for Santa and his reindeer.
Observance of Christmas began to increase substantially in Latin America in the 1960s, overwhelming the more traditional Reyes and bringing with it all the Germanic/Nordic iconography of snowfall, evergreens, Santa Claus, and the rest. But Jan. 6 has held on both as a tradition, and in part as a resistance to cultural Americanization.
The really smart kids, of course, celebrate both—the fact that they will collect presents on two occasions less than two weeks apart, of course, being very far from their minds! Felices Fiestas to all, y a todos Happy Holidays from Pablo Julián Davis and Interfluency Translation+Culture.