Christmas Traditions and Events in Costa Rica

Boat decorated with lights

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Costa Rica is primarily Catholic, and Costa Ricans observe Christmas with exuberance. Christmas in Costa Rica is a vibrant time: a celebration of the season, of lights and music, and of course, family togetherness.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are a huge part of Christmas in Costa Rica. Costa Rican citizens often decorate fragrant cypress trees with ornaments and lights. Sometimes the dried branches of coffee shrubs are used instead, or an evergreen branch if available. The Christmas tree in front of the Children’s Hospital in San Jose is considered the most important and symbolic Christmas tree in all of Costa Rica, representing gratitude and hope for the coming year, especially for the children.

Holiday Traditions

As with many Catholic nations, Nativity scenes with figurines of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and the animals visiting the manger are standard Costa Rican Christmas decorations, called pasitos or portals. Offerings such as fruits and little toys are placed before the Nativity scene. The baby Jesus figurine is placed in the Nativity the night before Christmas when he brings presents to the household's children. In Costa Rica, it is not Santa Claus who brings the gifts on Christmas Eve; it is the infant Jesus.

The Costa Rica Christmas season doesn't end until Jan. 6, when the three wise men are said to have greeted baby Jesus.

Christmas Dinner

A Costa Rican Christmas dinner is just as elaborate as an American one. Tamales are one staple of the Costa Rican Christmas dinner, pastries, and other Costa Rican desserts like tres leches cake. To drink, Costa Ricans favor eggnog and rum punch.

Another traditional meal is roast pork with rice or mashed potatoes and vegetables. Costa Ricans eat Christmas dinner after Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster), the Christmas midnight mass. Those who don’t attend church usually have dinner at 10 p.m. or earlier.

Parade of Lights in San Juan, Costa Rica

Festivals and Events

Christmas in Costa Rica commences with Festival de la Luz, held the second week of December, when the capital city of San Jose is transformed into a garland of lights. A huge lighted parade takes place on the second Saturday at 6 p.m., traveling from Paseo Colon to El Parque de la Democracia. Every year almost 1500 musicians participate in the festival, attracting over a million spectators from around the world. 

Bullfights are another traditional event during the Costa Rica holiday season. In Costa Rica, it is against the law to hurt the bull in any way. It's not really a bullfight. It is actually a corrida, which means "run" or a rodeo. At the event, 50 to 100 fighters enter the bullring. Once the bull is led into the ring, the objective is to outrun the animal without being horned, kicked, or trampled upon.

In San Jose on Dec. 26, the Tope Nacional de Caballos is the national horse parade featuring horses and the country's agricultural heritage. Horsemen from all over the country come to parade their beautiful horses and show off their riding skills. The hand-painted oxcarts from Sarchi are also celebrated. The parade begins around 1 p.m. in downtown San Jose on Paseo Colon.

The Carnival Nacional takes place on Dec. 27 in San Jose with a parade of colorful floats on display and colorfully costumed participants dancing to the rhythm of the bands. The parade runs along the main avenues of Avenida Segundo and Paseo Colón.