December & Christmas in Costa Rica

December is a very special month in Costa Rica. The school year ends at the beginning of the month and students begin their long vacation. The four-month-long rainy season has ended, and the hot muggy weather has been replaced with dry cooler temperatures of about 70 degrees. All working adults receive their aquinaldo from their employer, which is a bonus required by law and equal to one month’s pay. December is the time to spend it! And for Christmas, of course there are many festivals, parades, and Christmas traditions. One of the most important festivals is El Tope, which is a parade of show horses, beautiful horse-drawn carriages, and famous hand-painted ox carts called carretas in Spanish. The carts were originally pulled by people until 1840 when coffee exportation boomed. Oxen then pulled the carts, transporting coffee to ports and bringing other goods back. In early 1900’s, decorating the carts became common.

A manger scene at home

A manger scene at home

Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas starting on the ninth day before, which is December 16th. Costa Rican Christmas is centered upon the Christ child and so the Posada – praying and singing each of the nine evenings from December 16th to 24th –  and La Portal – the manger scene – are both very important parts of celebrations. The manger scene often occupies most of the living room. Children collect plants, grass, moss, and twigs to decorate it. The manger scenes are completed with crafted wood statues of Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, and the shepherds and their sheep. On Christmas Eve or Noche Buena in Spanish, the Christ child is placed in the manger just before the family attends midnight mass, which is called Misa del Gallo in Spanish – Rooster’s Mass.

Pesebre 1

A few days before Christmas, a Christmas tree is placed in the home and painted white. It may be a small Cyprus tree or dried branches from a coffee plant. Families decorate their trees with small figurines, lace ornaments, and brightly colored strips of paper. The gold star of Bethlehem crowns the tree.

Christmas Eve dinner is a late night affair, and no wonder with all the preparation that goes into it. The special Costa Rican tamales that are served take many hours to prepare. This feast is topped off with fresh grapes and apples that are imported for the holiday season.

Here is the recipe for a delicious chorizo and potato stew:

Chorizo* and Potato Stew

2 lbs chopped potatoes
1 1/2 lb “chorizo” spicy sausage
1 chopped onion
1/2 chopped chili pepper
4 chopped garlic cloves
1 bunch cilantro/coriander chopped finely
1 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp achiote
A pinch of annato, Mexican oregano, cumin, clove, and cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes along with the spices in a pot.
Add the rest of the ingredients.
Cook without burning over a medium fire for 10 min.

*Chorizo is a spicy pork sausage.

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