Timing and Decorations: The first thing you should know is that because Thanksgiving doesn't exist and Halloween isn't a big deal, the Christmas season starts very early here. I saw decorations as early as mid-October. For those of you who know me, I love Christmas but I believe it has a strict timeline of Black Friday-New Years day. In my opinion if it's stretched out it becomes diluted and therefore less special. However, I did my best to enjoy the Christmas lights, decorations and trees. While one the topic of decorations, Costa Ricans do a pretty good job of decorating, but it's still nothing compared to American standards. But, I must say one of the cutest displays of Christmas decorations was in the neighboring town of San Joaquin de las Flores. I was recommended by many people to go see their famous neighborhood Christmas lights display, so I decided to go. (Side note: I went alone, which is something I would never have done a few years ago. I used to feel awkward being seen alone, and fear feeling lonely, but the last couple of years abroad have given me the confidence to go solo and do the things I want to do, even if I don't have something to accompany me). The lighting display consisted of a couple of streets with houses covered and lights and with nativity scenes in their front yards. It was small, but charming. Many people come to see the lights, so in recent years the residents of the neighborhood have taken advantage of the situation and started selling food from their houses in order to help compensate for their rather large electricity bills. They sold everything from arroz con leche (rice pudding) to homemade chifrío (tortilla chips, rice, red beans, pico de gallo and crispy pork) but it was the pinchos (kebabs) that caught my eye. I picked out a delicious pinch of beef, onion, red pepper and juicy pineapple grilled to perfection. I enjoyed my kebab and admired the lights and started to get into the Christmas spirit.
Santa- Santa Claus has only become a popular in recent years due to the influence from the United States. Before, it was baby Jesus, not Santa who brought the gifts to the children of Costa Rica. In fact, children even wrote out their annual Christmas list and letters to baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus. Lately it has become confusing to the children who brings the presents, Santa or baby Jesus? One of my students told me that she has a good way of explaining it to her kids; that Santa is baby Jesus' helper, and that's why he's always in the Christmas movies and stories. Whether is Santa or Jesus, Costa Rica shares the same tradition of placing presents under the Christmas tree.
Christmas Eve/Day- Although every family is different, after talking to many Costa Ricans it seems the most common Christmas Eve here consists of going to evening mass, having a late dinner (around 9pm or so), and opening presents at midnight. Even the families with little children let them stay up late (they usually take a early evening nap in order to do so). Then, people sleep in on Christmas day and later on have a big feast with close family.
The Food- One of the quintessential Christmas foods of Costa Rica is tamales. Because it's an extremely time consuming process to make tamales and it takes many people to do it, the Christmas season is the best time of your to make them due to the vacation time and the abundance of family members nearby to help. Tamales are usually eaten with afternoon coffee, rather than the principal part of the meal. Another popular Christmas food is "Queque Navideño" (Christmas cake). The queque is baked in a small bread mole and consists of usually rum or guaro (a local liquor made from sugar cane), candied fruits and carmel/cinnamon flavors. It's an extremely moist cake but delicious when eaten with a cup of coffee or Bailey's. Finally, the typical Christmas dinner here varies from house to house but the most common dishes are chicken or pork made with rice and other sides. Beer is the main drink of choice with dinner, the brewery I work for has been crazy lately because it's peak season for beer, but some choose to drink rompope (egg nog) instead.
Fireworks- Fireworks here are big not only for New Years, but Christmas as well. Fireworks are legal to buy as long as you're over 18, and they're extremely convenient to buy as many fireworks stands pop up all over the city in the parking lots of local popular stores, restaurants, etc.
New Years- Because it's nearly summer time, the most popular place to spend New Years is at the beach! Every tico has a favorite beach (there are plenty to chose from) most of them will make the trip to the coast for New Years Eve. New Years day meal usually consists of a barbecue of local meats served with tortillas, rice, sweet plantains and of course, beer. They aren't big on the New Years Eve kiss tradition here, but they have some other traditions. Some people carry around a suitcase on New Years Eve in order to have a "travel-filled" year, others copy the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in the coming 12 months and some women wear certain color underwear to bring them good luck (red for love and yellow for financial prosperity). But, other than those little differences NYE is celebrated similarly to us, with friends or family gathering for one big special party with food, alcohol and fireworks in the mix.
As much as I love learning about their traditions I also love teaching about ours! This past week I made a slideshow to show my students what Christmas and New Years in the US is all about! I even made my students gingerbread men to introduce them to a traditional American Christmas cookie. They were quite a challenge to make considering I didn't have molasses or brown sugar and I had to cut them out by hand, but it was all worth it when I saw how much my students enjoyed them!
Well, I better go, I have a flight to catch today. Can't believe I'll be home in about 14 hours. As much as I enjoy being abroad and learning about their holiday traditions, I'm looking forward to celebrating a few traditions or my own for the first time in three years :)
Feliz Navidad everyone!