There’s nothing quite like Christmas in Costa Rica: tamales and sparkling lights, ocean breezes and mascaradas, fireworks on the beach and portales… And if any of those made you wonder “what’s that?”, then this one’s for you!
Because here in the tropics, these end-of-year holidays coincide with the best weather of the year – the transition from winter rains to summer sun, when the breeze kicks up and the sunsets are just barely this side of paradise.
Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas (or any of the December holidays), you can still savor Costa Rica’s many flavors of the season. Because, while December 24 and 25 are reserved for quieter, more religious pursuits, the rest of the season is devoted to holiday fun, seasonal foods, and annual events.
Christmas in Costa Rica: Traditions to Enjoy
In Costa Rica, the “Christmas season” – roughly, all of December – is one of joy and celebration, excitement and tradition. Because in the tropics, December is more than a lead-up to a holiday: The school year ends (and happy children fill the streets), the weather transitions (and happy everyone fill the streets), and the breezes kick up.
We call them aires navideños, or Christmas airs (breezes), and they mark the most wonderful time of year. Here’s what else is on the docket:
Traditional Holiday Foods
If you’ve ever baked holiday sugar cookies or sipped on mulled wine, you understand how holiday flavors tend to wrap you in a warm and familiar hug.
That holiday hug may taste a little different in Costa Rica, but it can be equally comforting. One of the most traditional foods of the season is served early and often: Costa Rican tamales (notably different from their husk-wrapped Mexican counterpart), made with corn flour, vegetables, rice, and meat (traditionally, pork), then wrapped in a plantain leaf.
We’d also recommend trying some rompope, Costa Rica’s version of eggnog: a little less eggy and spiked with rum, this drink can be found everywhere from a supermarket shelf to your neighbor’s fridge. If you can, pair your ‘nog with queque de frutas (liquored-up fruitcake) and make an afternoon of it!
While Christmas Eve dinner can vary widely from household to household – some go easy with an evening of tamales and coffee, while others go big with all the fixin’s – the most traditional (and traditionally delicious) choice is pierna de cerdo, or pork leg. (And Costa Rican pork is delicious!)
Spend any amount of time in Costa Rica and this may become one of your favorite end-of-year traditions! Mascaradas, or mask parades, pair huge (bigger-than-life, literally) papier-mâché masks of all things pop culture – political figures, celebrities, devils and more – with live marching band music.
As the band crescendos, masked figures dance down the streets. In years past, their job was to scare kids straight but today, the masks are more for fun and celebration. So, have fun and celebrate! Enjoy.
The Portal (Nativity Scene)
Portales, sometimes called pesebres, are one of the most loved traditions during Christmas in Costa Rica. In addition to the small-scale Nativity scene you may be familiar with, Costa Rica also goes big (literally) with portales that span entire walls and even rooms.
They make these scenes even more special with all the hand-made, hand-picked, and hand-elaborated details: real moss and real straw, adhered to an artisanal wooden stage with an elaborate background mural. And here’s a fun fact: In Costa Rica, it’s considered a blessing of good luck and marital longevity to gift newlyweds with their very own nativity characters.
Just like back home, gift giving is an important component to Christmas in Costa Rica. It begins in the warmest, most charitable of ways – with the annual Teltón, a fundraiser for the Costa Rican Children’s Hospital.
Come Christmas day, el Niño Jesús (the baby Jesus) traditionally brings children a gift. That said, Santa has gained enough steam (or mainstream, if you will) for Santa imagery, mall Santas, and other North Pole accouterments to show up. There are also many opportunities for charitable gift giving.
Annual Festivals and Events
There’s no time of year that Costa Rica goes more large-scale than in December, when the country literally decks its halls with twinkling lights and showmanship.
It traditionally begins with the Festival de la Luz, or Festival of Lights, a huge and float-filled parade that hosts 1+ million attendees for early December. Towns and cities all around Costa Rica host official tree lightings, often accompanied by holiday lights, fireworks, and more. (You haven’t experienced fireworks until you’ve seen fireworks at the beach!) It’s also right around this time that Costa Ricans start to decorate their trees – often, real cypress trees, cut and pruned to conical perfection.
On December 24 and December 25, many Costa Ricans attend Catholic Christmas Mass – a formal ceremony that all are welcome to attend.
Right after Christmas, the country gears up for El Tope, when horses (and their riders) take to San José’s streets for incredibly displays of skill and showmanship. (Watch for “dancing” horses!) If you prefer to add some party to your celebration, downtown San José’s Fiestas de Zapote offer a full park of carnival rides, street food, and other carnival fun. Think: A State Fair draped in garlands.
New Year’s in Costa Rica
If there’s one great follow-up to Christmas in Costa Rica, it’s New Year’s in Costa Rica.
While this holiday has traditionally been a quiet day dedicated to family and barbecues, it’s slowly becoming a more festive, more party-hardy kind of celebration.
Today, New Year’s in Costa Rica can still be a time for family and barbecues. But it can also be about New Year’s eve parties and long dinners at your favorite restaurants, beachfront fire dancing and setting off your own fireworks at midnight.
If you’re lucky enough to spend New Year’s in Costa Rica, then why not embrace a few of the more enjoyable traditions? Throw water over your shoulder to bid adios to the previous year’s bad vibes, then grab yourself 12 grapes for good luck (one for each month of the coming year). Wear red underwear to attract love or walk a suitcase around town, to assure travel for the coming year.
Happy holidays! Enjoy the season. And be sure to eat a tamal!
Christmas in Costa Rica Next Year?
The first step to calling Costa Rica home for the holidays? Moving to Costa Rica before the holidays!
We’re here to help you, every step of the way. Whether you’re just beginning to research cost of living or are ready to jump into the pros and cons of buying property, we’ll help you explore the wide world of life in paradise.
At Blue Water Properties of Costa Rica, we’re committed to you. Not to selling you a property or spamming you with all the options, but to helping – genuinely and with good intent – to match you to the perfect property for your needs and wants. We thrive on relationships and promise the fastest communication and best services in the industry.
At Blue Water Properties of Costa Rica, we’re proud to offer some of the best Costa Rica real estate. We have both condos and homes, land, and businesses for sale, including title property. So go ahead – try us. Give us a chance to show off our expertise – and wow you with the possibilities! We look forward to it.