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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.