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San Jose
Friday, February 23, 2024

Tropical Christmas: Traditions and Tamales in Costa Rica

Feliz Navidad! Is it too early to say that? Nah– It is now officially Christmas season.

Unofficially, it started sometime in October. I saw Christmas decorations in stores and the occasional house festooned with lights sometime before the first of November. The park in town got its lights strung this past weekend, and the Festival de Luces is only about a week away.

The Tropical Christmas is unique. We sing Jingle Bells and Silent Night while sweating in the heat. December sees the rainy season on its last legs, and there is ample sunshine, while our surroundings are at peak green lushness.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ticos’ smiles get a little bigger because it is the holiday season, a magical time with a magical word: Aguinaldo.

Double payday for tens of thousands. Colons flow, coffers are filled, schools are out for summer, it is a month for fiestas.

The annual Gordo lottery drawing will hold the public’s attention, and no one I know will win anything. Grifters and pickpockets are out in force as well, and the local radio and tv stations will make public service announcements warning people to be careful with those aguinaldos.

Over time the northern Christmas traditions have made their way here. The traditional Costa Rican house decoration used to be the creche, the Nativity scene: The manger, the farm animals, and Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus all set up as a centerpiece for the month.

With time, the Tico way of commemorating has become a hybrid, so along with the Nativity scene you may find a decorated Christmas tree and Santa and his reindeer overlooking the solemn creche. One timely Christmas tradition here is the making and sharing of tamales.

My wife’s family find me odd for many reasons, one of which is that I don’t like tamales. My limit is one, and it is a courtesy tamale. I respect the process, the time and love that goes into making a batch. But for me it is a lot of work for a little food: Unwrap the banana leaf, tear open the wobbly soft corn meal outer coating, and inside it looks like somebody stole the lunch of the poorest guy in town.

A small chunk of chicken, a spoonful of rice, a slice of carrot, a green bean, a sliver of bell pepper doesn’t hit the spot, and all that wobbly corn meal sits in my stomach like a toxic beach ball.

But I am an outlier here and tend to keep my opinion of tamales to myself. It is a month for family get-togethers and surprise visits. My wife is from a large campesino family, she was the 12th of 14 kids, and has nieces and nephews who are her elders.

Her extended family numbers over a hundred, and I will hope to remember everyone’s name when we meet. (I once told my wife–I love your family, it’s just that there are SO MANY OF THEM!) So bring on the pig roasts and the Rompope toasts, shoot off some low explosive pyrotechnic devices, and let’s all sing ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow’, while getting sunburned at the beach.

On Christmas Eve night (Nochebuena), church services compete with the random barrio fireworks displays, and firecrackers go off through the night.

The Tropical Christmas– I love it, and wouldn’t trade it for the celebrations in the frozen north. As long as there is someone to eat my share of the tamales.

Feliz Navidad!

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