In Puerto Rico there are two counterparts to the American tradition of caroling from house to house. One is called “parranda,” and the other is called “asalto,” which literally means ”assault.” The difference is that the first is planned and everyone knows where everyone is going, and the second is an on the spot decision to visit someone without warning. There is a standard repertoire that everyone knows, although contemporary songs are added from time to time. They occur from Christmas through the end of Epiphany.
I’ve experienced both the parranda and the asalto in Puerto Rico, New York, and Milwaukee. I remember in New York going from apartment to apartment in the public housing projects, and from tenement building to tenement building in snow and freezing conditions. We would stand in the hallway with our gloved hands clutching maraca, güiro, claves, and tambourines, singing the traditional entry song, “Saludos, Saludos, Vengo a Saludar,” (“Greetings, greetings, we come to greet you”) as the hot steam of our singing floated in the air.
Once inside the house, someone would unwind a blanket and disclose a case in which was a guitar or cuatro ( kind of Puerto Rican mandolin). The singing would continue for a while as hot chocolate, crackers and maybe even coquito (a rum and coconut beverage) was passed around. Then the folks from that house would join the carolers and go on to the next house. So the group got larger and larger as the evening continued.
One asalto I remember like yesterday was the year my Mom returned to spirit. It happened at the end of November, and I was still deeply grieving in December. I got a surprise call from a friend who informed me that I should get the house ready, because there was going to be an asalto. Before I knew it, every inch of the house was filled with people singing, moving, and musicians playing guitar, cuatro, every imaginable small percussion, full sized conga drums and even an acoustic stand up bass. What a party! What a joy! They brought me the spirit of Christmas.