Christmastime means family time for most Ticos.
And for kids, it’s candy time.
With most businesses and institutions closed for the Christmas holidays, Costa Ricans travel back to mom’s house for holiday festivities, bring their kids and unite with cousins, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles for family feasts, dancing, fiestas and prayer.
And the viaje almost always starts at the market.
“You have to bring food and gifts,” says Carolina Jiménez, 29, who travels with her 6-year-old daughter annually from San José to her mother’s home in the northwestern Guanacaste province. “Mami cooks delicious food, very delicious. We do whatever we can to help her and thank her.”
Jiménez’s duties almost always include fetching a big bag of rice and several pieces of chicken for her mother, who whips up “the most delicious arroz con pollo in Guanacaste,” she says.
The seasoned, orange-colored rice dish cooked with vegetables and chicken, known teasingly to some as “arroz con siempre” for is consistency at family gatherings, is a staple at Tico dinner tables during the holidays.
At the market, Jiménez also buys several rosaries. She hands them out to family members during Mass on Dec. 24, when religious Costa Ricans attend church and pray the Rosario del Niño to honor baby Jesus.
After the Mass, Jiménez always rewards her daughter, nieces and nephews with handfuls of confites (candies).
When Jiménez arrives in Guanacaste, she heads straight for her childhood bedroom, where pictures of her as a young girl wearing ballerina outfits still adorn the wall, to wrap presents for the 30 or so friends and family members that fill her mother’s house on Christmas Eve.
“More than anything, we get together and talk about our lives and the year and fill each other in on gossip.”
While Jimenez’s mom’s arroz con siempre may be the best in Guanacaste, Stefany Acuña, 21, and her family boast a different dish.
“Tamales,” she says. “And mami makes the best.”
The tasty Christmas treat is made from cornmeal dough stuffed with vegetables, meat and rice. Patties are wrapped in banana leaves, tied together in pairs called piñas and boiled.
Tamales are labor-intensive and usually require a full day of cooking. Family members make the piñas in assembly-line fashion, passing the masa (dough) along a table and adding ingredients along the way.
“No one ever makes two or three tamales,” Acuña says. “We make hundreds and hundreds and eat them for weeks and weeks until they are gone. By the end of January, no one wants to see a tamal ever again.”
Acuña says her mother, who lives in the southern San José suburb of Desamparados, usually sends her to the store to buy pork legs for her famous tamales. Acuña always buys a few extra bottles of Salsa Lizano, a popular vegetable and mustard sauce that perfectly tops a finished tamal.
After the feast, Acuña’s family gathers in the living room and talks over a few glasses of homemade rompope, a popular holiday drink similar to eggnog, made with milk, eggs, nutmeg and Costa Rica’s prized Centenario rum.
Outside of the home, small performances called posadas fill the streets during Christmas. Spanish for “inn,” the posada is an opportunity for children to act out the Nativity manger scene, dressing up as the Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men and illustrating Jesus’ birth.
Children often go door to door and perform the scenes for neighbors.
In San José, Christmas is always preceded by the Festival de la Luz, when the city lights up the downtown district with colorful illuminated floats and festive holiday decorations. Families also take a break from their busy kitchens and overflowing dinner tables and walk off their stuffed tummies at the tope, a parade through the city center that showcases bejeweled horses mounted by riders sporting cowboy hats and traditional dress. The event pays homage to Costa Rica’s rural beginnings.
Once Christmas is over and the New Year approaches, worship turns to parties and food to drinks.
Salsa and merengue music enliven homes, and relatives and neighbors dance through midnight. Bottles of rum and guaro, the Costa Rican sugarcane liquor, are passed from one dance partner to another, from the oldest couple to the youngest lovers.
Some neighborhoods host fireworks at New Year’s, while others throw outdoor ferias and carnivals. But wherever the barrio, New Year’s is a celebration for all.
“Even the old people get a little tapis (drunk) on New Year’s,” Acuña says. “It’s a time for everyone to get together, share, laugh and release.”