While images of beaches and tropical rainforests don’t immediately scream Santa or mistletoe, Costa Ricans are serious about having fun during the holidays. Right now, the holiday season is in full swing in Costa Rica, and it’s highly likely that you’ll see nativity scenes, decorated trees, and hear lots of Christmas tunes.
Costa Rica is, after all, a predominantly Catholic country, and Christmas and Easter are widely celebrated. Instead of Santa bringing gifts, however, the baby Jesus brings Costa Ricans their presents. At this time of year, students are out on break from school and many of their parents are spending their yearly bonus from work, and every week brings a new festival or holiday celebration.
A twinkling holiday season.
The annual Festival de Luz (Festival of Lights) is usually held the second Saturday of December and accelerates the Christmas spirit with a huge parade and extravagant light displays. The parade weaves its way through downtown San Jose, which is located about two hours from Arenal Hills. Last year, more than a million spectators lined the streets to enjoy the floats, marching bands, music, and thousands of sparkling lights along Paseo Colon.
It’s common for Costa Ricans to decorate their homes with cypress wreaths and light displays, and many place Christmas trees on their patios for all to enjoy. One of the largest and most spectacular Christmas trees can be found in front of the Children’s National Hospital in San Jose. Its sparkling lights are said to represent hope for the coming year.
Bring on the tamales.
The season’s most awaited food, slow-cooked tamales are a common menu item on Costa Rican holiday tables. While each family has their own version, tamales in general are made from corn flour that’s stuffed with vegetables, potatoes, pork, or chicken, and are wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed. The preparation is time-consuming and often becomes a big family affair that spans several days. Rompope, the Costa Rican version of eggnog, is often served at this time of year and is typically paired with queque navideno, a traditional Christmas fruitcake.
More parades and fiestas.
Cultural celebrations continue on Christmas day with the opening of the Zapote Festival at noon. The two-week Zapote fiestas bring carnival rides, typical foods and concerts along with bullfights and megabars. The fairgrounds, located in a small town north of the capital city, 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.
Fireworks light up the night sky.
December is the only month that fireworks are legally sold in Costa Rica, and just about everybody in the country enjoys a front-row seat to some dazzling displays. Neighbors congregate in their front years and streets to watch the explosions and cheers each other on another Christmas season well done.
Costa Rican New Year’s traditions.
Costa Rica has some truly unique New Year’s Eve traditions. Don’t be surprised if you hear people talking about their yellow underwear. It is believed that wearing yellow underwear on New Year’s Eve brings good fortune in the coming year. Green is worn if you want to attract money, and red is the color of choice if you want to attract your soulmate. Some hang ribbons in the same colors from their door for the same reasons.
Also don’t be surprised if you see someone walking down the street with their suitcase at midnight. Many believe if they carry a suitcase around the block at the stroke of midnight, they will travel and have many adventures in the new year. At midnight is also the countdown to fireworks.
Tossing water over your shoulder symbolizes the act of putting the old year and all its bad memories behind and prepare for a year full of promise. Likewise, if you eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve, you’re supposed to eat one grape for each of the coming 12 months and make 12 wishes.
While we would sing Auld Lang Syne in the U.S., in Costa Rica, the song to celebrate New Year’s Eve with is El año Viejo.
Think you might want to celebrate the holidays in Costa Rica?
We’d love to welcome you to Arenal Hills for an unforgettable holiday season. You can have a private chef prepare you a traditional Costa Rican holiday meal in your kitchen and watch the fireworks exploding over nearby La Fortuna. Whether you enjoy it from your own vacation home at Arenal Hills or by renting one of our homes just for the holiday season, we promise you it will live in your heart forever.