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Costa Rican Holiday Traditions

The holiday season is in full swing here in Costa Rica. Meander through any city or town and you'll encounter nativity scenes, twinkling lights, decorated cypress trees, and plenty of Christmas tunes. Supplant snowflakes with cool winds coupled with glorious sunshine, and you have typical December weather. It's the end of Costa Rica's rainy season and beginning of summer - a special time for family and friends to celebrate the holidays with food, festivals and fun.

Lights Festival

Christmas is an especially important holiday in this predominantly Catholic nation. Students are out on summer vacation, parents are spending their yearly bonus from work, and every week brings a new festival or holiday celebration. The annual Festival de la Luz, usually held the second Saturday of December, ushers in the Christmas spirit with a huge parade and extravagant light displays through downtown San Jose. This year, more than one million spectators lined the streets to enjoy music, marching bands, colorful floats, and thousands of sparkling lights along Paseo Colon.

Christmas Trees

By the start of December, most Costa Ricans have decorated their homes with cypress wreaths and light displays, and many place Christmas trees on their patios for all to see. Presents are placed under the tree on Christmas eve, but in Costa Rica, it is baby Jesus rather than Santa who brings the gifts. One of the largest and most spectacular trees is in front of the Children's National Hospital in San Jose. Its sparkling lights are said to be representative of hope for the upcoming year.

Traditional Foods

No holiday is complete without traditional cuisine, and slow-cooked tamales are the season's most awaited food. While recipes vary (nearly every family has their own), a tamal is made from corn flour stuffed with potatoes, vegetables, and a savory filling such as pork or chicken, intricately wrapped in plantain leaves and then steamed. The preparation is laborious, and is usually a big family affair that spans several days. Rompope, a local version of eggnog, is the drink of choice, paired with queque navideno, a traditional Christmas fruitcake.

Horse Parades & Fiestas

Cultural celebrations will continue on Christmas day with the opening of the Zapote fair at noon. The two-week Zapote fiestas bring carnival rides, typical foods and concerts along with bullfights and megabars. The fairgrounds are a family-friendly attraction by day, and transition to full-blown party at night. Not to be missed is the National Horse parade, or Tope Nacional, on December 26th. Thousands of riders from the Central Valley strut their steeds, riding skills, and best cowboy outfits through San Jose. Probably the largest people-watching event of the year, the parade usually starts around 1 p.m. and completely engulfs Paseo Colon and Avenida Segunda as riders and horses amble the four-mile route.

New Year's Eve

No matter where you are on December 31st, the skies will erupt with fireworks, a staple for any Costa Rican celebration. If possible, try and plan the evening in one of the Central Valley's mirador restaurants, where you'll be treated to panoramic views of lights and color across the night sky.

With the local traditions of food, family and fun, Christmas is one of the most joyous times of the year in Costa Rica. Feliz Navidad!

Costa Rican Holiday Traditions in Pictures

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