Did you hear the one about the tourist who ate a tamale? She said it tasted good but the salad was tough!
Costa Rica might be a disappointment for tourists at Christmas if they’re expecting a full turkey roast, but not for those ready for a change! Traditionally, Ticos eat tamales as their Christmas food: pork or chicken with vegetables in a corn flour mixture which is wrapped and cooked in a palm leaf – hence the tough salad joke! The tamales are a labor of love which often involves the whole family, preparing the corn flour paste in a huge pot, often over an open fire and then an assembly line of female family members to combine the ingredients together and fill each other in on the past year’s gossip. However, tamales are widely available in restaurants and roadsides for those tourists wishing to try some different Christmas fare. With their package-like wrapping, tamales can make good take-out too! For vegetarians, organic and meatless tamales can be found in some of the more expensive and exclusive delis of Santa Ana and Escazu. The preparation and consumption of tamales is a tradition which is very much alive and important to many Costa Rican families, but this cannot be said of many other Christmas traditions. The ‘Posada’, the procession of children or adults re-enacting the nativity from house to house is now a very rare sight in the country, although there have been recent attempts to revive it.
Costa Rican Christmas is a very-family orientated celebration but its focus, as in many other countries is becoming more commercial and less religious. Decorations and lights in stores and homes go up earlier and earlier each year as they seem to all over the world. Many homes, businesses and public institutions will also display a nativity scene. Do not be concerned that the baby Jesus has been forgotten from the scene! He is placed in his crib on the 24th of December, traditionally after nights of prayer and songs leading to his placement. He is removed with similar ceremony. For religious families, the 24th is also the night for Christmas mass in churches throughout the country.
Public celebrations include the Festival of Light in San Jose to celebrate the turning on of the city’s lights is certainly a pleasant and entertaining event with parades and floats through the capital’s main street. The drawing of the Gordo or Christmas lottery draws just a big a crowd and is eagerly anticipated by people all over the country, hoping for a extra-special gift. Unlike Easter which is celebrated with huge and elaborate processions and street plays of the death and rebirth of Christ, Christmas is a more private holiday to be spent at home.
Perhaps the best present that tourists to Costa Rica during the holiday season receive is the pleasure of a Christmas spent in a bathing suit under the shade of a palm tree, with the knowledge that at home it is cold and dark!