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Christmas traditions in Costa Rica are probably not what you are used to. You can prevent culture shock by learning what Ticos do during the Christmas holidays and where they go. Christmas Eve in Spanish is Nochebuena.
Adjusting to another culture is one of the most challenging things to do when living in another country. Christmas traditions are usually family-oriented.
It is essential to know that the official religion of Costa Rica is the Roman Catholic religion by the constitution. This fact clarifies that almost all Christmas traditions in Costa Rica are religion-oriented.
In some countries, like the one where I was born and raised, residents celebrate 1st Christmas day and 2nd Christmas day. For example, in Costa Rica, only Christmas eve is observed, which is the night of December 24th.
December 24th is not a National Holiday, but the 25th is. Everything is closed on the 25th, except for some grocery stores. If you’re planning to go to church, you might find this article helpful.
I don’t know what the Covid situation will do to any entertainment or events. Therefore, I suggest you check in the local newspapers if the event is on before you hop in the car.
Some of the events described below happen in San José. But some provincial towns and cities have their event. Other cities like Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Grecia, and Atenas have their own Christmas activities. The province of Guanacaste, for example, has a varied program for the Christmas holidays, see on Voz de Guanacaste. Check your local Facebook groups for up-to-date information on the events in your community.
Starting December 15th, this is one of the Christmas traditions that you will only see in the smaller towns anymore. Children are dressed up as shepherds and go from home to home, asking for lodging while singing Christmas Carols. At the last house (beforehand organized), they will receive dinner. The posada can take days, depending on the size of the town or village.
Pasito or Portal
El pasito or portal is a model of a nativity scene. Ticos usually include Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the wise men, the ox, and the mule. Often, Ticos add extra houses, animals and even build miniature villages. Costa Ricans traditionally install el pasito during the first days of December until January 6th at Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day.
Misa de Gallo
Misa de Gallo is the Catholic midnight mass. Translated into English, that would be Rooster mass. Traditionally, Misa de Gallo started at midnight and was a 2-hour Latin mass. However, most Catholic churches nowadays have only a 45-minute Mass beginning at 11 pm. Then Christmas dinner begins after mass.
El tope or horse parade is the famous oxcart and horse parade, where participants come from all over Costa Rica. The horse parade is always on December 26th, starting at midday. The topes is a prize-winning contest.
Christmas Tree lighting
Traditionally, the illumination of the Christmas tree at the Children’s hospital is a huge event. Customarily, this happening starts during the first week of December. The national power company CNFL began this tradition in 1964.
Also, the Coca-Cola company installs a giant Christmas tree at the Lago La Sabana during the first week of December.
Most Costa Ricans do set up a Christmas tree in their home. The Pasito or portal goes underneath the tree, just like anywhere else. You can buy trees directly from the farmers at the higher altitudes of the Central Valley, like Alajuelita, San Ramon de Tres Ríos, San Ramon, Grecia, and other cooler locations.
El Avenidazo is a boardwalk event during the first two weeks of December. Visitors can freely enjoy Christmas carols, concerts, traditional masquerades representing Christmas personalities during the afternoon and evening. El Avenidazo is on Central Avenue, starting at the San Juan de Dios hospital and ending at the foot of Cuesta Mora (the whole boulevard). In addition, there are theatre, free entrance, and storytellers for children at the Plaza de la Cultura.
Festival de la Luz
The San José municipality and the CNFL (National Power Company) organize El Festival de la Luz when all the Christmas lights are lit on the 2nd Saturday of December. Festival de la Luz is one of the most important Christmas traditions in Costa Rica. The festival starts in Sabana at 6 pm and ends at the National Museum on 2nd Avenue around midnight. Participants are school, high, and university marching bands, floats by large commercial brands, and cheerleading teams. Every year, the municipality of San José chooses a different marshal(s). The Festival de la Luz is a prize-winning contest.
Fiestas de Zapote – Toros a la Tica
The Fiestas de Zapote is a festival that customarily begins the last week of December until the first week of January. The main attractions of these festivities are the chinamos, bars, amusement rides, and bullfights a la Tica.
For the Toros a la Tica or bullfights a la Tica, the bull breeders of Costa Rica hundreds of their best bulls to challenge men and women’s ability to run away from the bulls’ horns. Participants do not harm the bulls in this style of bullfighting, but plenty of runners are.
See a video that shows what a Cimarrona mascarada is
The San José municipality on December 27th organizes El Carnaval, which begins at midday. Dance groups (contemporary and folklore), Caribbean dance troupes, costumes, cimarronas, and antique cars participate. The Carnival starts in Sabana, through Paseo Colon, Avenida Segunda, to The National Museum. The Carnival is a prize-winning contest.
December 25th is the first day of a mass departure of Ticos when everybody takes off to the beach. The only thing you can count on is that it won’t snow during Christmas time. The beach is a weird place to spend the Christmas holidays, but expats get used to it quickly. Real estate offices usually close a couple of days before Christmas until the first week of January.
I’ll divide the Christmas traditions in Costa Rica into two topics to keep this blog concise. First, I will write a separate blog about tamales in Costa Rica.
Feliz Navidad and happy holidays. We appreciate your real estate business, as always! Are you planning to purchase or rent during the Christmas holidays? Then contact us first. We might be enjoying our well-earned vacation.
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