Christmas in Costa Rica

Many aspects of Christmas in Costa Rica will remind you of celebrations “back home”, even though you may be confused by the warm breeze swaying the palm fronds above your head and the sound of waves crashing on the beach. It is a style that you can get used to.

Christmas in Costa Rica

Costa Rica really comes alive in December. The school year officially ends around the first of the month. That is the month that employees receive their year-end bonus (“aguinaldo”) which is equivalent to an entire month’s pay. And almost everyone gets their government-mandated week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

All businesses and most houses display a Christmas tree, and there are colorful lights strung all over. You will see the occasional Santa Claus, and this year it seems everyone has attached reindeer antlers to their cars! The streets and stores are crowded with shoppers—overrun with shoppers is more accurate! That end-of-the-year bonus is not going to spend itself! And The Nutcracker is performed in the National Theater. In those ways, Christmas in Costa Rica—though never white—is very similar to what you might be used to north of here.

But Ticos also have several customs that reflect more religious focus, since Catholicism is the state religion. And then there are traditions that are distinctly Tico.

Playa Hermosa Christmas

Sometime early in December, families start to assembly their “portal”, or nativity scene. It is usually a rustic affair decorated with branches and flowers depicting the main characters in the manger at the time of Jesus’ birth, plus additional houses and animals. It is an important tradition for most families to assemble the portal together.

During the first 2 weeks of December is “El Avenidazo”, a boardwalk event on the Avenida Central in San Jose where people enjoy concerts, traditional masquerades representing Christmas personalities, plays and storytellers each afternoon and evening.

The second Saturday of December is the Festival de la Luz which is a parade of marching bands and light-covered floats. The Town of Playas Del Coco throws a great Festival de la Luz.

Playa Del Coco Festival de Luz

On Christmas Eve, families place a tiny Baby Jesus in their personal manger scene before going to mass at 11:00 p.m. After mass, Christmas dinner is eaten, consisting mostly of tamales which are made of cornmeal dough, a bit of chicken or pork, a little rice, a slice of carrot and a few peas, bundled in a plantain leaf and tied with string and boiled until all the flavors meld. The preparation of tamales is a labor-intensive event often participated in by several of the women in the family and/or neighbors. Those who wait all year to eat tamales often eat them 3 times a days for days in a row until they are all gone. Also popular is eggnog with a generous splash of rum. Apples and grapes are special treats this time of year also.

Playa Hermosa Christmas tamales

Gifts are opened Christmas Eve, although it is not Santa Claus that brings the gifts, but rather the “Nino”, or Christ child. In the past, the gifts were mostly for children and fairly utilitarian in nature, like new underwear, socks, shoes and maybe a toy. But as the economy of Costa Rica has flourished, so have Christmas purchases. Nowadays on December 25th the streets are full of kids trying out their new dolls, skateboards, bikes and motorized vehicles.

Starting the week after Christmas is a custom you might not expect: bullfights! The Costa Rica version of the sport does not include killing—or even harming!—the bull. In fact, it is the people that are in the most danger. They enter the ring with the bull and try to get him to chase them.

Bull Fighting Costa Rica Style

One of the most important end of the year events is the nationwide exodus to the beach. Ticos plan it and save for it all year, and even though the prices go up even for the Ticos and the highway is basically a parking lot, EVERYONE goes. There is nothing sadder to see than someone who doesn’t get to go to the beach in December when everyone else does.

Playa Hermosa

So, if you like a party and are dreaming of a green Christmas, by all means, spend Christmas in Costa Rica, you won’t be sorry! See you on the beach in Playa Hermosa.

Costa Rica Thanksgiving

A golden-skinned turkey, aromatic stuffing, tart cranberries, and the warm spices of pumpkin pie…everyone’s mouth starts to water sometime in November just thinking about the traditional Thanksgiving menu. But what about Costa Rica Thanksgiving?  Can you still celebrate Thanksgiving in Costa Rica, where none of those are native foods and where no Pilgrims landed in 1621?

Costa Rica Thanksgiving

Well I have to be honest with you, I wrote this in the beginning of  November and got so busy that I forgot to post it. Better late than never.

The more than 100,000 naturalized citizens, legal residents and perpetual tourists say yes! Every year expats gather with what family is on hand combined with new friends and neighbors to commemorate that first harvest meal the Pilgrims had after surviving their first year in the new land. Well, not everyone survived. Only about half of the passengers of the Mayflower survived that first year. It is believed about 90 indigenous persons joined the 50 or so Pilgrims to celebrate the harvest for which they certainly were thankful.

The menu may have varied somewhat from the modern meal. Historians say the Pilgrims likely didn’t have sweet potatoes (and certainly not marshmallows!), pumpkin pie, corn on the cob or cranberry sauce. Besides turkey, the first feast probably included goose, lobster, clams, walnuts, acorns and carrots, leeks and parsnips, which sound a lot better to me than turkey and dressing.

If your craving is for what you know to be the traditional ingredients of Thanksgiving, no need to fret! Nowadays, supermarkets such as Auto Mercado and Luperon in Playas Del Coco stock all the necessary ingredients. Restaurants in the area offer dinners as good as any that can be found in North America for around $20.  You’ll enjoy roast turkey, stuffing, salad, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, apple and pumpkin pie. Now that’s Costa Rica Thanksgiving!

playas del Coco thanksgiving

It was not always so easy to satisfy the North American Thanksgiving palate in Costa Rica whether Canadian or American. With the exception of green beans, none of the traditional menu items are native to Costa Rica or commonly consumed, but that does not mean you can’t get them. Limited availability of Thanksgiving dinner ingredients in the past had expats packing frozen turkeys, the few that were crazy enough to do so, boxes of stuffing and cans of cranberry sauce in their luggage. Disaster stories abound involving delayed flights and thawed birds.

The ingredients can be pricey, with turkeys running around $40-50 for a whole bird. Remember, it is not a local item so it has to stay frozen all the way from North America. Substitutions and improvisations are the order of the day for those of us trying to duplicate favorite recipes. Chickens can be roasted in place of turkey, and stuffing can be made, the true and old fashion way, from scratch with bread, onions, celery and herbs. Most markets sell butternut squash and “ayote sazon”—both excellent stand-ins for pumpkin. Green beans are always in season and Maggi or Knorr make a pretty decent cream of mushroom soup mix, so with some imagination you can put together a tasty green bean casserole. The Costa Rican sweet potato has a light yellow flesh and is not as sweet as its northern cousin, but if you smother them with toasted marshmallows, who cares??

Playa Hermosa

There are a few Ticos who have ties to the U.S. who celebrate Thanksgiving in Costa Rica.  However, it is not a Costa Rican holiday since it really has nothing to do with them. Ticos love nothing more than to gather as a family and share a meal . Some are opposed to Thanksgiving, saying it is part a larger process of Americanization that includes Halloween.

That said, Costa Rica has no objection whatsoever to Black Friday, which it adopted a few years ago. The official start to the Christmas shopping season is very popular with Ticos and the stores are swamped. It is so popular that Black Friday has been extended to include the whole month of November—Black November. So Costa Rica Thanksgiving also means shopping.

Playa Panama Costa Rica Black Friday

Whether or not you chose a date in November to sit down to a turkey dinner in the tropics, any day of the year you live in Costa Rica you have a lot to be thankful for!