Christmas in Costa Rica! Traditions and Customs Explained

Christmas in Costa Rica, traditions and customs

There may not be snow on the ground here in Central America, but signs of Christmas in Costa Rica are everywhere. Shops have decorated their storefronts with Christmas trees, nativity scenes, twinkling lights and tinsel; and women are selling delicious homemade tamales around town.

Christmas in Costa Rica is a big deal. When it comes to Catholic traditions, it’s the country’s second most important holiday (next to Easter, which gets an entire week of celebration called “Semana Santa”).

Here are some of Costa Rica’s major Christmas traditions. Feliz Navidad!


Early in December Costa Rica holds a huge annual telethon to raise money for the nation’s Children’s Hospital. It’s a huge event with local musicians and superstars performing on television and drawing attention (and donations) to the cause. This year’s 2014 telethon raised over 500 million colones.

Festival of Lights

Costa Ricans look forward to December’s Festival of Lights in San Jose as much as Americans look forward to the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving. This year’s Festival of Lights was held on Dec. 13, and the Tico Times aptly described it as a combination of “(a) Las Vegas, (b) Santa’s village and (c) The Rose Bowl into one massive party.”

Fiestas and Bullfights:

Typical Costa Rican fiestas travel all over the country from late November to February – including carnival rides, street food, and huge block parties. They also feature plenty of Tico-style bullfights, which consists of men (usually somewhat inebriated) trying to ride and taunt angry bulls in a ring. Don’t worry – the bull isn’t harmed! Local fiesta schedules vary from town to town, usually lasting 3-7 days in any given pueblo.

Tamales & Christmas Cake

Christmas dinner is usually eaten on Christmas eve, which is called Noche Buena in Spanish. The two-star seasonal foods are Costa Rican-style tamales followed by queque navideño (Christmas cake filled with dried fruit soaked in rum) for dessert.

Tamales in Costa Rica are typically made up of corn masa stuffed with pork or chicken and vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and onions. This mixture is then delicately wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Tamales usually come two at a time, delicately tied together in a package called a piña.

Intricate recipes for tamales are passed down from generation to generation and making them each year is an important family tradition. Much like making Christmas cookies in the US, making tamales in Costa Rica is often a huge family affair – everyone young and old helps bring them to the table.


Ticos go all-out when it comes to making huge nativity scenes called portales de navidad. Baby Jesus isn’t usually placed in his manger until Christmas Eve at midnight. Check out this impressive portal in Escazu, a suburb of San Jose.

Church Services

For a great English-speaking Christmas service, check out Tamarindo Church’s Christmas Eve mass – which will be held at 5:30pm this year. Directions: If you’re leaving Tamarindo, pass the Automercado, the hardware store, and the big car wash/service center on the right-hand side of the road. Tamarindo Church is located just a bit further up the hill, on the left-hand side of the road. 

El Niño Jesus versus Santa Claus

Although Santa Claus has picked up traction in Costa Rica in recent years, El Niño Jesus has traditionally been the more common gift-giving figure. Kids write letters to baby Jesus instead of Santa, who then brings them gifts on Christmas.

Photo by: Genna Marie of Tamarindo Family Photos


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