Christmas in Costa Rica, a country that loves its celebrations, is an especially festive time. The Navidad holiday season lasts from the beginning of December with the Festival de la luz / Festival of Light and lasts through the arrival of the Three Wise Men on January 6.
In northern parts of the world, adults and children alike will get that “Christmas feeling” when the snow begins to fall and the days shorten into dark, crisply cold nights. In Costa Rica, close to the equator, the holiday coincides with the onset of summer and the welcome end of the muggy, rainy season. The air is dry and the days are sunny, with temperatures in the 70s. Nights are cool but clear and beautifully starlit. Children are on their annual summer vacation, and it’s a popular time for family vacations as well.
To add even more joy to this already happy time, every working national citizen in Costa Rica is required by law to receive an aguinaldo from their employer – a Christmas bonus equal to one month’s pay. Instead of wrestling with each other over the latest Xbox, Costa Ricans can shop for gifts and treats from the many street vendors who set up carts and stalls especially for the season and fill them with fruit, toys, crafts and decorations.
Costa Rica is a predominately Catholic country and Christmas is a religious celebration. While it’s a time of bustling activity in the cities, towns and neighborhoods, the focal point is the family home which becomes transformed with an elaborately built Nativity scene or portal. The portal often takes up most of the living room and is constructed with the help of the entire family. Crafted wood statues of Mary, Joseph, and the Three Wise Men, along with shepherds and various animals, stand watch over the cradle. Not until midnight on Christmas Eve is the Baby Jesus placed in his bed, where he will remain until January 6, when the Wise Men arrive to greet the newborn King.
Costa Ricans also put up Christmas trees, usually cypress, sometimes dried coffee branches, and top them with bright Stars of David. They favor multi-colored strings of flashing lights as well homemade decorations including paper garlands. There are presents under the tree, but those are for the adults to exchange at midnight. Children put their shoes outside the door before they go to sleep, and it’s not Santa Claus who fills them with presents, but the Baby Jesus. In the morning children are asked, “What did the Baby bring you?” (Although in more recent years Santa Claus – or Papa Noel – has made an infiltration.)
Costa Ricans attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and afterwards feast on a supper of which tamales are the main star. Though tropical fruit is plentiful, imported grapes and apples, delicacies, are the traditional dessert.
In the morning children will awake to find their presents and adults will go about their day in a sleepy, happy haze knowing that more festivals, more parties, and more feasts are in store before this holiday season, one of the most joyous of the year, comes to a close.