Costa Rican “Queen of Christmas”

by Hannah Nevitt, Greenheart Travel’s Volunteer Abroad Participant

While December 25th is listed as the official Christmas holiday, it is easy to see that Ticos celebrate throughout the entire month of December! The palm trees have been decorated, the lights have been strung, and the Christmas carols are blaring with cheer…in Spanish of course. And all around I can hear people saying, “Ya llego la Navidad”…Christmas has arrived!

Since November Dario has been asking me, “Cuantas dias falta hasta Navidad?” or how many days left until Christmas! As this was my first Christmas holiday being away from home, I was also counting down the days…because as I must admit, it was beginning to be a bit hard on me.

I missed my family, my friends, and all the traditions that came along with the holiday buzz. I missed the smell of freshly cut pine trees, the crispness of the cool December air, and watching my favorite Christmas movies on TV. The warmth of cinnamon spice and peppermint mochas, making gingerbread houses, and listening to Christmas music while I worked on a holiday puzzle with my grandmother. This year was definitely going to be different.

In an attempt to drown out my scrooge-like depression, I decided to embrace every aspect of the Christmas spirit that Costa Rica had to offer. Besides, the best way to experience a new culture is to see how they celebrate the holidays in their own special way. So in adding a little of my own Christmas flare, my goal was to make this Christmas unforgettable…for both myself, and for my adopted host family!

Strings of lights, ornaments, ribbons, and bows! My first task as the “Queen of Christmas” was to purchase and decorate my host family’s first ever Christmas tree! This turned out to be a diversion not only for me, but for the kids as well! Their faces lit up with glows of reds, greens, and yellows as we strung the lights and hung ornaments  of glittery stars and little toy drums…Now it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

The next week was spent decorating and preparing for the Christmas holiday. I went to the church with my host mother to help decorate a “Corona,” or a large wreath that would be displayed by the entrance.  Then we went home and cut down banana leaves in preparation for the long process of making tamales.

The typical Christmas meal, known as tamales, is essentially a rich mixture of corn dough, stuffed with vegetables and meat, then wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Families, especially in rural areas, make hundreds of them at a time and share them with extended family, friends, and with the less fortunate.

I literally watched as my host brother and all the neighboring kids chased frantically after several chickens in the backyard! Just when they thought they had one surrounded it would jump a fence or scamper through their legs leaving nothing but a fistful of feathers in their hands! I am not sure if they actually ended up catching one, but if they did…that would mean one less clucking chicken to wake me up at 5:30 am, so I didn’t feel that bad!

Back in the kitchen, I helped chop vegetables and mix the corn dough in a large pot. I watched as one of the women next door cut and washed the banana leaves to wrap the tamales. It was neat to watch the entire process…as a full day’s work is involved in making them. In one day, they prepare hundreds of tamales for the coming week!

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