Costa Rica is a predominantly Catholic country, so many of Costa Rica’s Christmas traditions are centered around their religion. While Costa Ricans recognize Colacho or Santa Claus, El Niño Dios or baby Jesus is the giver of gifts. Children even write “Cartas al Nino” or letters to El Niño Dios to tell what they would like for Christmas.
Even though the last Friday in November began to be called Black Friday in Costa Rica in 2011, the Christmas season starts at the beginning of December. One Christmas tradition is the Christmas bonus. By December 5th, Costa Ricans receive a Christmas bonus equal to one month’s salary.
Christmas Traditions and Events
In Costa Rica, the month of December is packed with holiday events.
Since 1964, the Christmas season in Costa Rica starts with the Christmas tree lighting at the National Children’s Hospital in San Jose on the first Thursday of December.
In addition, the front of the National Children’s Museum is lighted on the first Wednesday of December. Originating in 2000, it includes a 90-minute program that encourages children to dream. Live theatrical and musical performances are included. The event ends with fireworks.
A large Christmas tree located at the Lago La Sabana is also lighted the first week of December.
Costa Ricans also have Christmas trees in their homes. The Christmas trees in Costa Rica are cypress instead of pine trees. A nativity scene known as a pasito or portal is placed under the tree. Extra houses and animals are added to the nativity scene. The display can become quite large. The tree and the pasito are displayed from early December through Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day on January 6th. The baby Jesus and presents are placed under the tree at midnight on Christmas Eve. In addition, fruits and little presents are placed in front of the pasito.
For El Festival de la Luz, more Christmas lights are lit around San Jose. The festival itself runs from 6 pm to midnight on the second Saturday of December. It starts in Sabana and ends at the National Museum with fireworks. There is a parade with bands, lighted floats, and marching units. The festival, started in 1996, also includes performers and is broadcast on television.
El Avenidazo is a party in downtown San Jose. The party is a nightly affair through Christmas Eve. People head downtown to toss confetti onto the street, window shop, enjoy the holiday camaraderie, and see people dressed as Christmas characters. There is music, entertainment, and more holiday lights
Posadas occur in small towns and villages starting in the middle of December. Children in shepherd’s costumes sing Christmas carols and go house to house asking for shelter. Depending on the size of the village or town, posadas can take several days. The house that will be visited last is predetermined because the children will be served dinner at that house.
Misa de Gallo is the two hour Christmas Eve or Noche Bueno midnight Mass. Before Mass, Costa Ricans enjoy a Noche Bueno dinner and exchange gifts with family and friends. Then, they place El Nino Dios in the manger and go to Mass.
On Christmas Day, children play with the toys they received. Families may go to Christmas Day church services, the Fiestas de Zapote, or the beach. They may also have friends over in the evening.
El Fiestas de Zapote is a festival held from Christmas Day to the first Sunday of the new year. The festival includes bullfights a la Tica, amusement rides, food stands, musical performances, and chinamos or small bars. The bullfights or corridas are actually rodeos featuring running with the bulls events with 50 to 100 participants because it is illegal to hurt a bull in Costa Rica.
El Tope is a parade on December 26th at noon featuring more than 3,000 horses and oxcarts. Parade watchers may receive an invitation to ride with a cowboy.
El Carnaval is held on December 27th at noon. The parade features floats, dance troupes, cimarronas, costumes, and antique cars. It travels from Savana to the National Museum.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated much like it is in the rest of the world. There are private parties, public celebrations, and fireworks. There are also televised events. People count down to the arrival of the new year and toast it when it arrives.
New Year’s Day is a national holiday. People can rest and recover from the prior evening’s parties, and then, they can visit friends and family or return from the beach or other vacation spot. Costa Ricans don’t participate in the New Year’s resolution tradition.
Costa Rican Christmas Food
For Noche Bueno or Christmas Eve dinner, Costa Ricans enjoy pierna de cerdo asada or roast pork leg, tamal navideño or tamales, potatoes, rice, vegetables, tres leches cake, other pastries, and rompope or eggnog mixed with rum. Tamales are eaten for any meal throughout the year in Costa Rica, but Costa Ricans make a batch for the holidays during the first weekend of December.
During the holiday season, Costa Ricans enjoy other special treats.
El queque navideño is the Costa Rican version of a fruit cake made with rum. Many companies give their employees a queque navideño as a holiday gift.
Las manzanas escarchadas or candy apples and maní garapiñada or peanut praline can be found at el Fiestas de Zapote. Maní garapiñada can also be found at the grocery store.
Churros are deep fried pastries with crisp edges, spongy soft centers, and cinnamon and sugar coating. They are also available at el Fiestas de Zapote. Along with the cinnamon and sugar-coated churros, chocolate- and caramel-filled churros are available.
Uvas y manzanas or grapes and apples are also a favorite Costa Rican holiday treat. Some companies may give their employees baskets that include queque navideño, uvas, y manzanas as well as other treats. While Costa Ricans may not make New Year’s resolutions, some do eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve to have good luck throughout the New Year.