What is it that makes us follow old customs year after year, even with so many new appealing ideas in the market? Why do families continue to make hundreds of tamales from scratch when it’s easier to buy them ready-to-eat at the “super,” and the family is much too scattered to make it home for a tamal?
Maybe it’s just easier to do the same old thing with no need to consult lists, recipes or instructions. And maybe it’s because traditions forge a link between past and future.
A Christmas tree and reindeer may grace the home, but the portal, or Nativity scene, with the figures of the Holy Family, a cow and donkey, some shepherds and sheep housed in a shed-like structure or a sculpted paper niche, is central at Christmas time.
It may be tucked into a corner where nobody will accidentally step on it, or be resting amid colored sand, potted plants or lana (moss) to represent the hills and dunes of Bethlehem. In some homes, the figures go back generations, and the portal may include a collection of miniature animals: ducks, roosters, dogs, geese.
Imaginations make portales unique. One family added a fish tank because there’s a villancico, or Christmas carol, that mentions the “fishes in the river” adoring the Christ child. Another family included their photos.
Today’s portales may have moving parts, running water or Christmas lights twinkling around the manger.
Tradition also sets the portal on the floor, because you kneel before it for the rezo, or rosary to the Christ child, on Christmas Eve and many evenings after. Some communities, in a revival of old customs, have lifesize community portales, and the whole town comes out for the rezo. In one neighborhood, the portal was on the roof of a house where all the neighbors could see it while they said the rosary.
Christmas still means tamales to Ticos, and it remains popular for the whole family to help make enough tamales to last through to New Year’s, with a production team working around the kitchen table when the masa, or dough, is ready (see separate story).
The first person wipes down the banana leaves used for wrappers and passes them on to the next person, who spoons out the masa and passes it down the table for the vegetables, the pieces of meat and the final wrapping and tying with string before they go into the pot to boil up for an hour or more. Unlike work, this is a fun time for the family.
Pastorcitos, or little shepherds, is a custom that begins the week before Christmas, when children dressed as Mary and Joseph and a group of shepherds go knocking on doors asking for posada, a place to rest where Mary can have her baby. Naturally, they are invited to come in for treats, to sing villancicos or pray the rosary. Some posadas are elaborate with refreshments, while others are humble with just a few cookies.
Christmas Eve arrives with all the relatives and family gathered to see the portal and have a tamal and cake, and maybe something a little stronger (which in old-time rural areas was made in a metal barrel hidden behind the house). If the church is nearby, there is Midnight Mass, called the Misa del Gallo, or Rooster’s Mass, because it tends to end about the time the roosters arise.
Someone, however, must stay home to await the arrival of the Baby Jesus, who is placed in the manger exactly at midnight, and to help him put the children’s presents near their beds.
The Christmas spirit doesn’t really end until Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, and throughout the month of January neighbors and friends get together for rosaries to the Christ child, sometimes with a parish prayer leader and sometimes just a family member leading prayers and hymns. This popular custom always ends with refreshments and renewed friendships. In neighborhoods that still share the custom, there may be a rosary to the Christ child every night in January. Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, Jan. 6, a big event in Spain, is more played down here, observed without the elaborate dinners and presents.
Noise, noise, noise heralds in the New Year, and long before the 31st we hear firecrackers and other explosives known as pólvora, or fireworks. A noisy New Year’s is an old custom from Europe, when the celebration was for the Purísima or Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8. Then gunpowder was exploded to celebrate the Virgin Mary. In time, the church objected to this despoiling of a sacred day, and the pyrotechnics were delayed until the end of the year.
With so many children getting injured from handling dangerous materials, most fireworks are now prohibited, though bengalas, or sparklers, volcanoes and a few other mild ones are available at special stands erected in December. Sales are controlled by the Public Security Ministry, though unfortunately many of the dangerous type still make their way across the borders from Nicaragua and Panama.
Because New Year’s comes in “summer” in Costa Rica, it is an outdoor celebration for many, with fogatas or barbecues out in the yard, lots of food, music, karaoke, dancing and folks dropping in to wish everyone a feliz año nuevo. In cities, parties in homes, hotels, restaurants or halls are more likely.
The magic moment of midnight means hugging everyone in the room, a brindis or toast to the New Year, and eating 12 grapes for each of the months of the year, which may be served in a fancy serving dish or right out of the bag. Then it’s out to the road to watch the fireworks light up the sky, and it seems like the whole horizon explodes in light and color. Parties usually continue until the early morning hours. And why not? It’s summer!
With the influence of so many Nicaraguan neighbors in Costa Rica, a new custom, the gritería, is becoming known. This is celebrated Dec. 8, but is definitely part of the holiday festivities. Gritar means “to shout,” and the custom is to call out to neighbors and friends, “Why all the alegría?” And the answer is because of the Virgin Mary. This is an invitation for refreshments and drinks and friendly gatherings.