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Nicky Nieves Celebrates Puerto Rican Roots Through Holiday Traditions

By Nicky Nieves | Dec. 24, 2020, 10 a.m. (ET)

Nicky Nieves poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


I love getting to share my family’s holiday traditions. We have about four things that are a staple in my household and maybe could become a staple in yours! Sit back, relax and allow me to paint a picture of the different things that make up a Nieves holiday season.
December 24 – Noche Buena
It is December 24, 11:30 p.m. Many people might not be aware, but as a Puerto Rican, Christmas is mainly celebrated on Noche Buena or Dec. 24. Let me set the scene for my family’s celebration. 

Salsa and merengue hits blare on my speaker while my family dances around in the living room. My mom records everything on Facebook live, and we occasionally look over to her phone to greet some of the family members that we are told are watching. My grandma busts a move with her walker, and my grandfather decides to sit and play the congas along to the Latin beat. 

The clock strikes midnight, and it’s time to open the gifts! Each family member gets their turn as the rest of the family watches. First my mom opens her gifts, then dad, grandfather, grandmother and oldest niece. I open mine last. I love watching the look of happiness on everyone’s face as they open their gifts, especially when they receive gifts that they least expected. 

The gifts don’t stop there. Once everyone is done, I pass around the hat with the numbers, which will represent everyone’s turn in white elephant. Some gifts are better than others, including different types of gifts cards or something as simple as a foam roller. Nevertheless, we’re all dying laughing at my grandmother’s unwavering attempt to steal any gift my mother gets. 

Holiday Food – Pastele 
Another key part of my family’s holiday traditions include a traditional food called pastele. Making this meal is a long process, but it’s all worth it when I taste the yumminess. 

I think back to just a week ago when my family and I all helped in the process to make these. My mom and dad went to the bodega, a Latino grocery store, and purchased a box of green plantains. My dad stripped the peel off the bananas, and he and I use graters to grind the banana down to a dough. 

Once the dough is made, it is seasoned to perfection. While my dad and I are focused on the dough, my grandfather prepares the rest of the items that go in the pastele – meat, potatoes, olives and raisins. 

Once everything is cooked and ready, we are ready for assembly. We all man our stations. My grandfather oversees putting together all the fixings and placing them in the cooking paper. These can also be placed in a banana leaf instead of paper, but we prefer the paper. 

The assembly line continues. My mom transports. My dad oversees cutting all the string to tie up the pasteles. My niece and I oversee tying the pasteles up, and my mother also takes charge of grouping them and placing them in the freezer. Ultimately, we all end up tying pasteles for sake of time.

After all is done, we end up making and tying seven dozen pasteles! As a family, we all clean up together, and before you know it it’s 1 a.m. I’m tired, but happy. Although 2020 has been a crazy year, I am still blessed to have done another holiday with my family. 

New Year’s Eve 
Once Christmas is over, we prepare for the next two holidays – New Year’s Eve and Three Kings Day. My father and mother go back to the bodega but to buy Yuca, also known as Cassava, to make pasteles de Yuca. The process is almost the same only this time instead of wrapping in paper, we wrap in foil. These are my absolute favorite. 

December 31 comes around, and it’s almost a copy of Noche Buena with lots of dancing, laughing and eating pasteles. The clock strikes twelve and we cheer ‘Happy New Year!’ with hugs and kisses.

At the end of it all we pray. While in our prayer circle, I give thanks for being blessed with another year of life, opportunity, family and mercy. My mom prays out loud, and in her prayer she always mentions that she wants us to continue to be encouraged in our spiritual journey. 

Three Kings Day  
A few days pass, and it’s time for our last celebration – Three Kings Day.  This one is my favorite holiday because I feel like the gifts are little yet add value to something you’ve been wanting or needing. Last year, I gave my mom a super pretty jewelry box with rhinestones to add to her room theme. This year, I’m getting her something that will be helpful when she’s out and about. 

It’s January 5 around 10 p.m., and I lay out a shoe box full of hay. I leave this for the camels to eat when they get to our house as part of the Three Kings Day tradition. 

Also tradition for us is another night of dancing and celebrating, and of course eating to our heart’s content. The clock strikes midnight, and we open our gifts with smiles from ear. My 91-year-old grandfather always gives a speech about how happy he is that God granted him another holiday season and how blessed he is to be surrounded by family. 

My family traditions are what I love most about the holiday season. Making food together, dancing and being merry is what the holiday season is all about. Whether you make one of my family’s traditions part of your celebration or decide to create a new tradition, love on your family and enjoy all of the joy the holidays bring!

Nicky Nieves

Nicky Nieves is a Paralympic gold medalist in sitting volleyball. Nieves made her Paralympic Games debut with the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team in Rio in 2016, where the women took home the team’s first-ever gold medal after defeating China. In 2019, Nieves and the U.S. women’s national team won an impressive 25 matches and went undefeated on the year.

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Nicky Nieves

Sitting Volleyball