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Carolers in Islip Town keep alive Puerto Rican Christmas tradition

About 100 people gathered in Central Islip on Sunday to participate in "Parranda Navideña with a Twist," a Puerto Rican Christmas caroling tradition where homeowners open their doors to carolers, who proceed to party all night. The twist was that performers traveled from home to home during the day instead of in the middle of the night. (Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles)

Wanda Negron thought of her musician father, Jorge Negron, on Sunday as she sang Christmas  carols along with a crowd of nearly 100 in two homes and a nursing home in Islip Town.

As Negron sang the lyrics in Spanish on Sunday, memories of her childhood rushed back, reminding her of the time she spent with her parents caroling from apartment to apartment in the boroughs of New York City when growing up in Brooklyn.

“It’s the best thing about Christmas,” Negron, 41, of Huntington said of the Puerto Rican music tradition known as Parranda. “It just makes me feel warm and fuzzy.”

Sunday’s event “Parranda Navideña with a Twist” is the localized version of Parranda that came with a minor change of caroling during the day instead of at night.

In a traditional Parranda, performers travel from home to home in the middle of the night to play music. The homeowners would open the door, invite them to come in to share food and drink, and  often join the crowd to visit the next house.

“It’s the epitome of Christmas in Puerto Rico,” Negron said as her 8-year-old daughter, Sofia Robles, stood next to her  just outside the packed living room of a Central Islip home where dozens sang “Feliz Navidad,” whose English version is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Jose Cruz, 55, of Bay Shore still remembered going with his father to perform at people’s homes in Puerto Rico where he grew up.

“It was wonderful because we bring happiness to every house that we go,” recalled Curuz, who was one of the singers on Sunday. “Sometimes people don’t want us to leave. And sometimes we stay there, and they start cooking for us.”

At the kickoff party Sunday, Candido Crespo, 57, of Brentwood passed around Coquito, a coconut-based drink that is similar to eggnog, in small paper cups to partyers in the parking lot of the Long Island Rail Road station in Central Islip.

Like Cruz, Crespo also remembered going with his parents to carol in homes in Brentwood.

“I remember when they used to have me follow them around as a child to learn these traditions,” said Crespo, president of the Puerto Rican Coalition for a Better Community, which organized the event with Latina Moms of Long Island. “It was good, and it’s still with me, and I’m passing it over to the kids.”

Dorothy Santana of North Babylon, who founded the Latina Moms of Long Island and who started the event three years ago, said she did it to help preserve Latino traditions that might otherwise have been lost and to connect the younger generation with their heritage.

“We want them to grow with that sense of pride in their heritage and help them form their identity,” the mother of four said. “It really helps ground them in who they are and helps them have a sense of worth.”

On Sunday, the crowd made several stops, including one house and a nursing home in Brentwood. Eventgoers said they hope the cheers brought by the holiday caroling would help change Brentwood’s image, which has been tarnished by reports of gang-related crime and street violence.

With “the Brentwood community, you hear so much negativity,” said Legis. Samuel Gonzalez, who represents Brentwood and Central Islip in the Suffolk County Legislature. “To bring out the positive [side] of this community is very important. It’s very important to me that we … show a different light of what this community [is about.]”

For Brianna Colon, 11, of Bay Shore, Sunday was about enjoying the music and celebrating the holiday season with fun.

“My plan today is just to have as much fun as I can,” Colon said.

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