San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Old Holiday Traditions Still Beat Santa Claus

Globalization has brought Christmas  trees, sleighs and overdressed SantaClauses to tropical Costa Rica. But  the old customs, those that came from Spain with the early settlers, still prevail. Other traditions, born here as a mixture of cultures, have been part of the holidays as long as anyone can remember.

The portal or pasito, the nativity scene, is still the most important part of Christmas in Costa Rica. It must, at least, include the three figures of the Holy Family, one cow and one donkey. The figure of Jesús is added at midnight on Noche Buena, Christmas Eve. In most homes, a variety of other figures have been added to the scene: shepherds, sheep and angels, mainly, but also chickens, roosters, cats and dogs.

The nativity scene begins with lana or moss, found around trees in the woods and colored in sandy hues to landscape around the stable, cave, hut or shoebox that comprises the home where Jesús made his first appearance. Add cypress branches, potted plants, stars and creativity, and each portal is unique.

Recent years have brought about a revival of interest in nativity scenes, with neighborhood contests and ingenuity producing wondrous tableaux with blinking lights, flowing water and recorded hymns. Families add whatever feels important, such as photographs of family members. Some neighborhoods host live portales with humans portraying the Holy Family, complete with incongruities such as shepherds wearing watches or Jesús squalling from the itchy hay while friends and neighbors crowd around to say the rosary and sing villancicos, or carols. Figures of the three kings, with or without camels, make their appearance on Jan. 6, and many Ticos celebrate the day with a rosary.

Rosaries to the Christ child are still popular, with friends and neighbors meeting at a home to recite the rosary in front of the nativity scene, followed by cookies, coffee or rompope (eggnog; see story on  Page S9). Years ago, everyone had a rosary, so you went to one every night. In some homes, guitar music and singing accompany this custom.

Tamales, cornmeal patties stuffed with vegetables, rice, meat and cilantro and wrapped in banana leaves, are a very important part of the Tico Christmas holiday. Extended families still get together, men and women, to assembly-line a hundred or more of these favorites. After the masa is cooked and ready, the family lines up around the table. As the banana leaf is passed down the table, each ingredient is added until the last in line wraps the tamal and ties it, ready for boiling. All holiday guests are offered a tamal, or as many as they can eat. Sugar candies called melcochas, pan casero or bread baked in a wood stove, and chicha or corn liquor are still treasured as Christmas traditions. Tamales and chicha come from the region’s indigenous people.

Christmas presents and toys for the children did not become a custom until the 1880s or so, when German merchants, among them Antonio Lehmann (of Librería Lehmann) and Carlos Federspiel (of Librería Universal), opened stores here. In the far-off campo or countryside, children received homemade toys, wooden trucks and oxcarts and dolls made at home. Toy oxen were made of corncobs and carts from sardine tins. Toys and sometimes coins were found under pillows on Christmas morning, sneaked in by the Christ child.

In the days before Christmas, the pastorcitos, children dressed as Mary and Joseph  and shepherds, came around to different homes on different nights asking for a room for the Holy Family. Naturally, they were invited in, and, after prayers or the rosary, refreshments were passed around. This tradition is coming back in favor.

New Year’s comes during verano or summer here, and traditionally it is an outdoor party with a fogata (bonfire) for grilling up the chorizos (sausages) and tortillas. The evening may begin with Mass at church or the rosary at home. At midnight, grapes are  served, 12 for each person to eat between hugs and wishing each other a feliz año nuevo. Then it’s time to watch the fireworks across the horizon, as each and every town puts on a pyrotechnic display.

Some old traditions are gone and little lamented. Originally, celebrations were held around Dec. 8, the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with firecrackers and homemade fireworks. The church did not look kindly on these wild displays, which were eventually delayed until the end of the year. Every year saw casualties, especially among children, from fireworks. Campaigns by the National Children’s Hospital, the Red Cross and other organizations have pretty much ended the use of home explosives.

The old custom of fermenting sugarcane in a barrel out back and serving it to guests “still warm” is also dying out. It’s much easier to buy a bottle of guaro (Costa Rican sugarcane liquor) at the store.

There are new traditions too. The gritaría is one brought to Costa Rica by Nicaraguan immigrants and centers around Dec. 8, which is considered part of the Christmas holiday. Friends greet each other by shouting “Qué es la causa de tanta alegría?” (What is the cause of such happiness?). The answer is shouted back: “La concepción de la Virgen María” (The conception of the Virgin Mary). Food, drink and music are part of this festival, and in recent years gritaría parties have been held at the Nicaraguan Embassy and in parks.

Straw deer come out at this time of year, sold at roadside stands and stalls. Made of wood shavings molded on wooden frames and coming in sizes from babies to big, each has its own expression and pose. This is a truly Tico tradition, the invention of which is claimed by Venacio Cordero of the western Central Valley coffee town of Naranjo (TT, Dec. 12, 2008). Several other artisans also make these critters, which are now a Christmas must.


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