Las Octavitas (the octaves) is a vestige of the “Octavas,” the medieval Catholic tradition of celebrating religious events for eight days, for example from one Sunday to the next Sunday. Back in the day, this was one of the ways, the Church controlled every aspect of life.
The octave of Three Kings Day January 6 extends Christmas in Puerto Rico from January 7 to 14.
Sometimes two different aspects of an event were celebrated. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and the octava of Christmas on January 1st celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, his mother. So you get the celebration of mother and child.
The concept is a bit like musical octaves where the same note repeats at higher and lower frequencies. For example on the piano, there is a middle C note, several higher Cs and several lower Cs. It’s the same tone at different frequencies.
On string instruments, if you softly touch the string at certain points, you block the main frequency of the string and only let through very high frequencies or “harmonics” which sound almost like whistles. You can do this on violins and guitars.
In a similar sense, religious folk were trying to elevate their experience into a higher frequency or harmonic.
There where so many religious celebrations all year long that the Catholic church reduced their number in 1568 and again in 1955. Today Catholics only celebrate octavas of Christmas, Easter and Pentacost.
Anyway Las Octavitas in Puerto Rico are a remnant of these traditions.
The Celebration in Puerto Rico
Puerto Ricans like all Caribbeans are a fun-loving people. Any day or night is reason enough to have a party with family and friends.
We still celebrate Las Octavitas. It brings us right up to Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, San Juan’s version of a patron saint festival in mid-January. Calle San Sebastián is a street of bars inside the walled city of Old San Juan. It’s always a place to go drinking and dancing.
Almost every Puerto Rican on the island, who can afford it, makes the journey goes to old San Juan and celebrates the holidays for six more days. We’ve never seen so many young Puerto Ricans in one place. We eat, drink, sing and dance bomba, plena, salsa and reggaeton. It’s wild. And then we go back to work.
Puerto Rico has the longest Christmas celebration in the world from Discovery Day on November 19 to the end of the San Sebastián Festival in mid-January.
Something similar happens in Brazil. The entire country basically shuts down from Christmas until the end of Carnival. It’s the Latin way.
Come and celebrate with us. In Puerto Rico, the party never stops.