Christmas in Costa Rica
Christmas in Costa Rica is filled with festivities, parades, and family traditions that reach back generations. A joyous, celebratory atmosphere descends, touching many aspects of everyday life and making December the favorite month for many. The season unofficially begins in early November, when Halloween decorations are replaced with Christmas displays and festive tunes hit the airwaves. As holiday preparations kick into high gear, many Costa Ricans decorate their homes with blinking lights, a Christmas tree, nativity scenes, and fresh cypress wreaths.
Christmas is a time of year-end bonuses and long vacations from school and work. All employers are required by law to pay an aguinaldo, an annual bonus equivalent to one month's salary. Students enjoy a two month-long break, while many employees get at least a week or two off from work. Most government offices close for the weeks preceding and following Christmas day. Due to the extra vacation time and bonus, the end of December is one of the most popular times of year to travel, second only to Easter week.
In Costa Rica, portales (nativity scenes) are a very important Christmas tradition. Most families, strictly religious or not, display a nativity scene in their home, often in the living room or near the Christmas tree. Tradition dictates that families who do not own a home may only use gifted nativity scenes so that the Holy Family will help them buy a house in the future. Schools, churches, and town parks also assemble large and elaborate nativity scenes. Both personal and public portales are a source of pride, featuring fresh moss, brown wrapping paper, and treasured figurines to depict the night of Jesus' birth. The baby Jesus is not placed in the manger until midnight on December 25th; the three wise men are reserved until January 6th, Epiphany Day.
Traditionally, Costa Ricans buy cypress trees for Christmas, though artificial trees have become more common. Most families decorate their trees with ornaments, lights, and a golden star to symbolize the biblical star of Bethlehem. A large cypress displayed at the San Jose Children's Hospital is perhaps Costa Rica's most famous Christmas tree. A seasonal custom for several decades, it is said to represent thankfulness for all we have been given, and hope for the coming year.
To commemorate Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, groups walk through the streets each night, singing Christmas carols and spreading the seasonal spirit to their neighbors and friends. These processions, known as posadas, vary by town. Some are led by two small children carrying a replica of Joseph and Mary on a donkey, while others deviate from the traditions of old.
Though most homes and public places have been decorated for weeks, the Christmas season officially kicks off with San Jose's Festival de la Luz (Festival of Lights). The event, which attracts more than one million people, usually takes place two Saturdays before Christmas Day. The giant parade, which includes floats, dance squads, and bands, also displays hundreds of thousands of lights, including large fireworks displays.
Two important Christmas traditions go hand-in-hand with Costa Rican cowboy culture: topes (horse parades) and toros a la tica (Costa Rican bullfights). Towns throughout the country celebrate the season with horse parades, though the most famous is held in San Jose on December 26th. During the Tope Nacional, riders from around the country arrive to show off their skills -- well-trained horses perform a sort of equestrian dance, lifting their legs in a carefully choreographed rhythm. Later, many Costa Ricans head to the Zapote Festivals in eastern San Jose for traditional bullfights, where the bulls are taunted but never killed, and brave onlookers get to test their courage in the ring.
Christmas Eve, known as Noche Buena (Good Night), is a day for family. After spending the day together, many Catholic families attend Misa de Gallo, or Christmas Mass, at midnight. After mass, families settle in for a late-night Christmas feast, which often includes turkey, pork leg, tamales, and other traditional foods. Once the children are in bed, the baby Jesus, known as the Nino Jesus, brings gifts that will be opened on Christmas morning. (Until recently, Santa Clause has not been an important part of the Costa Rican Christmas.) After the midnight meal, most families place the baby Jesus figurine in their nativity scene manger, symbolizing the holy birth.
The holiday season officially ends on January 6th, the Dia de los Reyes Magos (Wise Men Day), or Epiphany Day. Marking the day that the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to see Baby Jesus, family and neighbors often gather for meals and, occasionally, gift exchange. Costa Ricans add the three wise men to their nativity scenes on this day, representing their arrival to Bethlehem. In between singing religious hymns, a special prayer is said for the newborn savior. Finally, the nativity scene is disassembled and decorations put away until the following Christmas season.