As in other parts of the world, Christmas in Costa Rica is a time for celebration and parties, sharing and reflecting. The month of December is electric with thoughts of the season, and busy with preparations for festivities, family get togethers and vacations. In late November decorations begin to appear in downtown shops, and by the second week of December everybody has lights strung, cypress wreaths hung and Christmas trees decorated. And you can be sure that here, too, stockings are carefully in place awaiting the arrival of the Baby Jesus.
The traditional Christmas tree in Costa Rica is a big evergreen branch, a small cypress tree, or dried coffee branches. The “tree” is decorated with white paint and brightly colored strips of paper. Lights and small colored balls, a variety of small figures and lace are also used to adorn the greenery. A gold star is placed on top as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem.
Christmas was first celebrated in Costa Rica in 1601 when then-Governor Don Gonzalo Vásquez de Coronado organized nationwide festivities.
A very popular Latin American tradition–the portal–is a nativity scene constructed of mosses and grass, colored sawdust, cypress twigs, black paper, silver glitter and figurines representing the birth of Jesus in the manger. Along with the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepards, the three wise men and the ox and mule, Costa Ricans commonly add extra embellishments like dolls, little farm animals, tiny toys, fruits and berries, and lights.
While Costa Rican families spend a great deal of time arranging their portales just right, tradition says that families who don’t own a home must use a portal that has been received as a gift–then the holy family will help them get a house of their own. The portal is often placed under the tree (along with the presents) but may sit on a table, platform or on the floor in a corner of the living room. Wherever it is, it occupies a position of honor and is a point of pride in the home. The people put a lot of effort into making each year’s portal better than the last and the displays frequently outgrow the space under the tree or on the table and begin to monopolize a large part of the living room.
Christmas tree with portal
The figure of Baby Jesus is placed in the portal at midnight on December twenty-fourth. That’s also when the adults open their gifts. The children are told that the Baby Jesus brings their gifts while they are sleeping. Nowadays, Saint Nicholas has also become an important part of the custom and his rotund presence is everywhere.
Posadas take place during the nine days before Christmas. Originating in Spain and Mexico, the posada consists of a group of neighbors getting together at a different neighbor’s house each day to act out the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. This is accompanied by singing and praying, snacks of the season, and lots of tamales.
The Misa de Gallo, Christmas Mass, takes place at midnight on December twenty-fifth. That is the night that many families enjoy their traditional Christmas dinner.
The origin of the portal is attributed to Saint Francis de Asis. It is said that in the thirteenth century, St. Francis started making belenes– representations of the birth of Christ– with figures of humans and animals.
Throughout the month of December there are parades, carnivals, parties, and religious processions in all corners of the country. The tope has been celebrated in Costa Rica since colonial times. Originally the activity when bulls were cut out of the herd to be used in the bull fights, for the past forty years it has been a formal parade of horses down the main streets of San José. Riders from across the country come to the city to show off their best mounts and formal duds. Today’s tope includes much more than stately horses and their proud riders. Other folkloric elements have been introduced such as horse-drawn carriages and the famous hand-painted oxcarts.
The tope is complemented with a grand parade complete with floats, marching bands, dancing girls and clowns. This also runs down the main streets of San José, turning the city into a sea of partying humans. For many Costa Ricans this parade is the party event of the year.
Bullfights are synonymous with the season’s festivities in Costa Rica. Popular since the colonization, they take place in the Zapote Arena every night during the festive season. The bulls are never harmed in the Tico version of the bullfights. The most popular phase of the Tico bullfight is the run when dozens of young men race into the ring en masse with the intention of frightening the bull and provoking it to attack. Although the bull is never harmed, occasionally one of the men is gored. The whole thing is a performance designed to release adrenaline, relieving the frustrations of the past year.
Thanks to the Costa Rican government every worker in the country has extra money in December to spend on gifts. The aguinaldo is a government declared Christmas bonus, given to every employee in the country by his or her employer. It is equivalent to a full month’s pay. Costa Rica was a Latin American pioneer in the establishment of this mandatory bonus. There is also a special drawing worth several million colones held during December by the National Lottery Commission. As Christmas Day approaches, much of the electricity in the air can be attributed to this Lotería Navideña.
On New Year’s Day all Tica housewives prepare for the coming year by sweeping out the house, from one end to the other, removing the past year’s bad luck and beginning anew.
Traditional seasonal foods include the tamal (corn flour dough stuffed with potatoes, vegetables and pork or chicken, then boiled in plantain leaves) (here is a recipe for Costa Rican tamales); pupusa (tortilla with cheese, corn and whatever); vigoron (cabbage, tomato, yucca and fried pork rind, served on a plantain leaf); and grilled pork, chicken and sausage. Many Costa Ricans have adopted the foreign custom of eating turkey and ham, as long as they are accompanied by the traditional Costa Rican tamal. Rompope is also in great supply. Known by North Americans as eggnog, it is generously fortified with dark rum or brandy.
The closing ceremony to the Christmas season isn’t until January sixth (traditionally the date the three wise men arrived to worship Jesus) when neighbors get together for a special prayer for the Baby Jesus. Family and friends pray the rosary and sing Christmas carols. Then food is offered and the portal disassembled and put away until next year.
Feliz Navidad, Próspero Año Nuevo, and may the Baby Jesus leave a gift for you under the Christmas tree.