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10 Signs Christmas is Coming to Costa Rica

May 25

maria jose christmas
Maria Jose of Latin American Idol Helped Inaugurate the Children’s Museum Decorations.

1. In the first official event of the Christmas season organized by the Municipality of San Jose, the Oxcart and Saints Parade, 300 oxcarts hit the streets of Costa Rica’s capital city this past Sunday, Nov. 30. This 12 year-old tradition unites colorfully painted oxcarts, oxen and their drivers from all over the country, each one carrying the statue of a saint. The parade began in La Sabana Park and finished on 2nd avenue with spectators lining the streets despite the inhospitable weather.

2. Next come the decorations. Last night, Monday, Dec. 4, marked the inauguration of the manger scene in front of the National Theater in San Jose (the baby Jesus will be added on the 25th). There was also a celebration held for the lighting of nearly 8,000 colored bulbs gracing the facade of the Children’s Museum, which included a musical performance and fireworks. Yet to come is the lighting of the tree in front of the Children’s Hospital, which is to represent the light of hope for those inside. With the town fully lit, including Christmas lights strung over the streets, a presentation was held at the National Theater in honor of the manager scene, which was followed by the first of three nights of Christmas Carols, which will be performed by national choir groups, a traditional event organized by the Theater each year. This free event will take place tonight and Wednesday night as well at the Plaza de la Cultura in front of the National Theater. Each evening will see 90 minutes of traditional and modern Christmas carols starting at around 6 p.m.

3. Like at home, the change in television programs also serves as a constant reminder of what month it is. Beyond the Christmas themed Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish, the beginning of December marks the start of the Children’s Hospital telethon. The 48-hour telethon starts this Friday and will unite musicians from all over Latin America in the Sports Palace (Palacio de Deportes) in Heredia to inspire residents and companies to try and reach the year’s goal of over 0,000, to help the burn victims unit in the hospital. Come Christmas time, “El Chinamo”, a non-stop party is televised with commentators challenging attendees to competitions and contests for nearly 12 days — the duration of the “Fiestas de Zapote” (see below).

4. The brisk “Christmas winds” start to blow toward the end of November all over the country, causing temperatures to drop and overcoats to come out. It may be an odd image for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I assure you, scarves and warm hats become the norm in San Jose to fight off the biting winds and cool evenings, whereas afternoons can still get up to the 80s. This is also the beginning of the dry season, which will last until April, welcoming outdoor activities with clear skies.

5. On Dec. 13, the Christmas spirit will really kick in with the traditional Festival de la Luz in downtown San Jose from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The “Light Festival” sees shinning, brightly lit floats slide down Paseo Colon with high school marching bands animating the thousands of attendees. This year, the guest of honor will be Maria Jose Castillo, who finished in 2nd place for this year’s Latin American Idol competition. The parade has such a large showing every year that the news channels broadcast advice on how to not lose your children, dress for the frigid weather and avoid pickpockets and petty theft.

6. All through the month, shopping centers and the pedestrian parkway in downtown San Jose can be seen flooded with shoppers looking for a ‘ganga’ or deal. In an effort to support the annual boost to the economy, employers in the country are obligated by law to offer a substantial Christmas bonus to all employees that have worked for a certain amount of time for the company. For anyone employed in the same place for the past fiscal year, this would amount to an extra month’s salary.

7. While out in the street amid the bustle of the season, you may also notice tables set up on street corners with chatty salespersons offering the “Gordo Navideño”. This is in reality, the “fat Christmas one”, or the biggest lottery of the year, worth over .1 million in total. While a regular lottery system circulates throughout the year, the Gordo Navideño is the most popular and brings out the most hopeful and superstitious buyers.

8. To warm up during meal time (and in between), Costa Ricans reach for tamales as a principal dish during Christmas. The most traditional of Costa Rica food, these banana leaf-wrapped pies of corn dough, meat and vegetables are so popular that stores often run out of supplies. It is a tradition among women in the country to get together and cook an endless supply of tamales for the season. Another popular treat of the season are apples and grapes. You will find street vendors selling the two, often alongside Christmas decorations, a dead giveaway that ‘tis the season!

9. If filling up on tamales, singing Christmas carols, decking the halls and enjoying the December parades hasn’t put you in the holiday spirit, Dec. 24th may be your last chance! “La Noche Buena” is time for the real Christmas feasting, and the evening that the Baby Jesus (rather than Santa Claus) arrives to leave gifts for family members. The following morning, the families give thanks to the Baby Jesus, and truly religious families will attend a midnight mass called “La Misa del Gallo”, or the Rooster Mass.

10. The BIGGEST outdoor activity of the season, las Fiestas de Zapote, begin on Christmas day in the southeastern neighborhood of San Jose, Zapote. This two week long festival combines carnival rides, food, bars, make-shift dance halls called “toldos”, and Costa Rican bull fights. “El Chinamo” is broadcast on site through the duration of the festivals and involves lots of dance contests and various competitions and getting the attendees involved.

Photo courtesy of La Nacion.

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