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Everything you need to know about Christmas in Costa Rica including family traditions, the best parties and traditional recipes.
While I grew up dreaming of a white Christmas, I haven’t had too much trouble adjusting to Costa Rican Christmas traditions.
Not only does the holiday season in Costa Rica happen right in the middle of summer (think sunny days, gorgeous sunsets, and just the right amount of wind to keep things cool)- employers are required to give people spend money right before the holiday! (This tradition is known as the aguinaldo.)
Read on to find out everything you need to know about celebrating a traditional Costa Rican Christmas- including how to prepare for the holiday (la Navidad), community festivals, and how we celebrate the actual day. ¡Feliz Navidad!
Related post: Best Gifts For Costa Ricans
Traditions To Prepare For Christmas
Since Costa Rica is still a mostly Catholic country, the Nativity scene (known in Spanish as el pasito or el portal) is a prominent presence in Costa Rican homes and businesses beginning the end of November.
Homes compete for the very best Nativity display-complete with lights, running water and even live plants. Beginning in November, you can find Nativity scene pieces all over the streets- vendors hawking Baby Jesus figurines, wise men and hay.
The smell of spruce is also in the air at Costa Rican Christmas, as sellers from the high country bring spruce trees used in Costa Rican homes.
Costa Rican Christmas trees tend to be a bit smaller than those in the US, but decorated with the same care and love as elsewhere around the world.
This isn’t a “Christmas tradition” per se, but so many Costa Rican families bring out their masks and recreate the enmascaradas tradition during the Christmas season that I had to include it.
Eating is a big part of the Christmas Celebration. These are some of the most popular Costa Rican Christmas foods.
- Pork tamales (tamales Navideños) – corn flour filled with pork and rice and wrapped in plantain leaves or banana leaves
- Egg Nog (Rompope)
- Roasted Pork Loin (pata de cerdo)
- Christmas Cake (queque Navideño)
Aguinaldo (Christmas Bonus)
What is arguably the best Christmas tradition in the world is the aguinaldo, or compulsory Christmas bonus.
Employers are required to withhold a certain amount of money from each employee’s paycheck through the year, and then give it in a lump sum to each employee no later than December 15th of each calendar year.
When that aguinaldo hits, mayhem ensues. Bars and restaurants fill up (especially in downtown San Jose), stores are bustling, and ticos are very happy. Aguinaldo is synonymous with pura vida.
Community Christmas Celebrations
Almost every park has its own traditional lighting of the Christmas tree and church. The whole town shows up to count down and watch the lights turn on.
Here’s what it looks like in our hometown of San Ramon, Costa Rica.
Children’s Hospital Tree Lighting
The Children’s Hospital in San José (Hospital de niños) has a huge tree that they light up each year. Centrally located, it’s easy to drive by. The lighting is also usually televised.
Children’s Museum Lighting
Similar to the hospital, the Museo de niños lights up each year for a gorgeous display.
Festival of Lights
El festival de la luz in San José is a parade that takes over downtown with lights, music, and general good fun. It’s also televised on multiple national channels for those that can’t make it to the capital.
After Christmas, it’s party time for the rest of the month of December. Ticos love to have fun, and with the perfect weather and money in everyone’s pockets, it’s time to party.
National Horse Parade (El Tope Nacional)
The horse parade is a uniquely Costa Rican tradition, and the December 26 tope is one of the biggest of the year. Over 2500 horses and their riders take over the Avenida Segunda in San José to parade down the street and show off their animals.
Non-riders also line the streets in chairs to watch the spectacle, or to wait and see if a cute rider invites them to ride along. There is a lot of music, yelling and beer at this event- and it’s a blast.
Bullfights – Fiestas de Zapote
One of my favorite holiday traditions is the bullfights that happen in the suburb of San José called Zapote.
Bulls are not killed in Costa Rica- instead, bull riders fight to stay on the longest. Intermittently there are musical and comedic acts that take to the ring to entertain all ages.
The most hilarious part, however, is when average ticos take to the ring just before a mad bull is released. People taunt the bull before running and throwing themselves over the fence. Meanwhile, this is televised nationally with colorful narration.
Adding to the competition is that the two main television stations rotate who gets to broadcast the bullfights each night- resulting in increasingly outlandish acts designed to draw in the most viewers. It’s one of my favorite parts of the year, and we watch it live even from the States on Teletica and Repretel.
When it’s not bullfighting time, the fiestas are replete with delicious street food, carnival games for kids, endless nights of dancing. Over 100,000 Costa Ricans attend the fiestas each year- it’s the place to be from December 25-January 5th of each year.
Want a taste of the madness? Here’s a favorite clip:
Another street parade? Absolutely! This one is a traditional carnaval with dancing, marching bands and bright colors. Generally held on December 27.
Known as El Teletón, this is a fundraiser for various entities. It’s a televised variety show at the beginning of December each year.
A chinamo is a little street store where you can buy all kinds of different things, but it’s also a week-long variety show that takes place each year in mid-December. Well-loved by ticos– you’ve really got to see it to believe it.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Traditions
Christmas Eve Dinner (La Noche Buena)
Truly this dinner can be as varied as it is in the States. I’ve been to carne asadas on the beach and I’ve been to formal dining room dinners.
But if I had to say what the most traditional Christmas dinner is, it would be the pata de cerdo– roasted pig leg marinated in spices and baked forever. Served with rice and beans, and a delicious rum cocktail called rompope.
Many Costa Ricans are Catholic, and the midnight Mass (known as misa del gallo or the Mass of the rooster because it is so late and so long) is widely attended. After Mass, we head home where Baby Jesus has brought presents. No Santa Claus like in the United States (known as Colocho in Costa Rica) although he is becoming more popular as globalization takes over.
Family Time/Beach Time
Christmas Day is spent with family or visiting friends. Many ticos take advanage of the holiday to visit the beach.
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Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by