San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Straw Reindeer: A totally Tico tradition

Most modern Christmas displays are made up of plastic nativity scenes and fake Christmas trees from China. But the darling deer made of wood shavings, now a tradition here, are thoroughly Tico.

The design and manufacturing process sprung from the imagination of Venancio Cordero, 42, a sculptor and artist from Orotina, a town just inland from the central Pacific coast. Back before his deer creations began taking up most of his time, Cordero supplied accessories to florists.

“In 1994, around Christmastime, I watched a florist making wreaths using a similar method, and I asked for some of the leftover material,” Cordero recalls.


Venancio Cordero’s two-story-high deer stands sentinel, left. Joan Bougie | Tico Times

With that material, he made his first few deer, which he sold through the florist shop. Three years later, he set up his own workshop, where he and wife Lidieth Acuña, also an artist, started making the deer by hand. This year, with the help of 23 workers, in the months leading up to Christmas they expect to make 18,000 deer – about 400 a day – in their makeshift shop just west of the tollbooth on the Inter-American Highway in Naranjo, northwest of San José.

A herd of deer ranging from 10 inches tall to waist-high stands sentinel along the road, next to a two-story-high horned animal made of straw that can be seen half a kilometer away to draw in customers. And customers come. Tourists, families and retailers all stop, look over the deer and make their selections.

Because the deer are all handcrafted, each one is different. Cordero leaves them plain so that buyers can add ribbons, faces, bells or color, or leave them as they are. Some retailers sell them decorated for Christmas. As the holidays approach, stands, stalls and stores around the country sell Cordero’s deer.

No fresh wood is used and no trees are cut down to make the deer, Cordero says. He uses branches or fallen trees and end pieces from waste logs. The wood is shredded with a chain saw, and the shavings are wrapped around wooden “skeletons” and wound with nylon thread. In the process, tails, necks, faces and antlers are formed. Cordero says he uses pine, gallinazo and tagua wood because their light color “looks like snow, and reindeer come from a snowy climate.”

Cordero says his critters will last for years and are not affected by termites or other bichos.

His output also includes sheep, elephants, sleighs and stables to house nativity scenes. Prices at his highway stand are moderate: ₡700 ($1.40) for the smallest deer and up to ₡5,000 ($10) for meter-high size. Prices are higher at retail stands.

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