In a country void of snowflakes, distinct symbols like starlit parades, tamales and “Christmas winds” that bring a chill to the last months of the year take on a powerful significance during the holiday season in Costa Rica. Christmas is one of the most important holidays in this Catholic nation – and as such, the holiday spirit begins long before December 24th. Come November, Christmas tunes hit the radio waves, families plan their nativity scenes and retail stores erect incredible decorations and lighting displays.
The country’s official traditions begin in December, commencing with the beautiful Festival of Lights, transitioning to the fun-filled Zapote Festival, leading on to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and culminating with street parades, horse shows, live music and dancing. It is a season to be merry, visit family and take advantage of extra vacation time and the legally required year-end bonus, called the aguinaldo
, roughly an extra full month’s salary.
Festivals & Celebrations
Costa Rica’s Christmas festivities begin in early December with the annual Telethon, 48 hours of concerts organized to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital. The Festival de Luz
, or the Festival of Lights, follows, welcoming a long-awaited parade of intricately lit floats down the main street of San Jose, as well as concerts and fireworks.
Though the entire country puts on an elaborate affair, San Jose’s two-week long Fiestas de Zapote
are the most popular, characterized by a combination of tradition and revelry. During daytime hours, carnival rides, bull fights (known as Toros a la Tica
) and street food vendors take center stage, but after the sun goes down, massive “megabars,” or portable dance halls, turn on their neon lights and pump up the volume for one of the country’s most raucous annual celebrations.
Christmas dinner is enjoyed late on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena
, to honor the pending birth of the baby Jesus. Every family has its own custom, but the meal often includes pork roast, turkey and typical tamales
, and is followed with the opening of gifts around the tree at midnight.
On December 26, Costa Ricans line San Jose’s streets for the Tope Nacional
, the National Horse Parade. This is the country’s largest equestrian parade, and riders from all corners of Costa Rica attend to show off the skills of their most prized horses. Per tradition, riders teach their mounts not to jump or race, but to prance through the streets in a series of elaborate steps, as if they were dancing for the audience. For serious horse trainers, the Tope
is the celebration of a year’s hard work – many champion horses are bred and trained to excel at the event.
December 27 heralds Carnaval, an enormous street parade through San Jose that features complex floats, bands, clowns, giant balloons, folkloric dance troupes, and ornately costumed performers. Thousands of attendees dance in the streets, sing their favorite songs, and dine on tamales
, and other traditional Christmas street foods. This is the last official Christmas celebration before the nation’s capital packs up its decorations until the following year.
Costa Rican nativity scenes, called portales
, are often handmade and include real-feel touches like fresh moss, twigs, and wood chips – not to mention frilly glitter and decorative paper. The displays’ embellishments are unique to each family, as well as their placement – often on a tabletop, beneath the Christmas tree (usually a cypress), or prominently displayed in the living room. Traditionally, the figurines of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds grace the portal
throughout December, but the baby Jesus is placed in the manger for the first time at midnight on December 25. Likewise, in accordance with the Christ story, the three wise men arrive on January 6, Epiphany Day. One religious belief states that only families who own a home may purchase a nativity scene; families who rent use gifted portales
so that the Holy Family will someday help them buy a home.
El Niño Jesús
Until very recently, Santa Clause was not a common tradition in Costa Rican homes. Instead, children awaited the arrival of el Niño Jesús
– the baby Jesus. After the midnight meal on Christmas Eve, it is traditional to place the Jesus figurine into the nativity scene’s manger, symbolizing the holy birth. After dinner, children rush to the Christmas tree, where wrapped gifts are distributed among family members to be opened at midnight Here, credit for gift-giving is given where due, though it is tradition to inquire: “What did the baby Jesus bring you?”
Costa Rica’s holiday foods are one of the season’s most awaited traditions.
are a traditional fare made from fine-ground cornmeal, vegetables, potatoes, and a selection of pork, beef or chicken, all formed into packed rectangles and wrapped up like a gift in fresh plantain leaves. Recipes are unique to each family, and many rely on culinary secrets passed down from generation to generation. The cooking process often lasts several days, so Costa Ricans (mostly women) set aside a weekend in November or December to prepare.
is the nation’s traditional Christmas fruitcake, a treat prepared with love and the wisdom of generations. It features a heavy crumb, similar to pound cake, that is fortified with rum-soaked dried fruit. In the most traditional kitchens, cooks marinate their fruit for weeks, often joking about its alcoholic potency.
Uvas, peras y manzanas, or grapes, pears and apples, start to show up in abundance around mid November, signaling the start to the holiday season.
Nature Air Schedule and Fares
Learn more »
- Worlds First Carbon Neutral Airline
- Member of IATA
- Only Twin Engine Fleet in Costa Rica
- Panoramic Window Views
- Highest On-Time Performance
- Largest Private Charter in Central America