Christmas in Costa Rica


(Ana, a special friend, making tamales.)

Winds are blowing and misty fog is rolling in. Kids are excitedly finishing up their school year; streets are bustling with people; and venders are hiring extra help to stand in the doorways of the shops to entice people into their stores. Portales (Nativity scenes) are a huge part of decoration but also part of the religious tradition. Almost every home will have one. Prayer requests are written on small pieces of paper and placed underneath the portal.

Instead of wintery snow and freezing temperatures, we have a change from rainy season to dry season. It is an exciting time of year! Soon there will be tamales. Yes, instead of turkey, ham or fruitcake it is not Christmas without tamales. Ladies work tirelessly making hundreds of tamales for the week of Christmas. (I have eaten tamales in other countries, but the tamales in Costa Rica are unique.) We had our first one of the season yesterday.

Our kids grew up with this tradition, and they love tamales. Our friends share with us, so there is plenty to eat at Christmas time. The Costa Rican tamale is a dish of seasoned meat rolled in cornmeal dough and wrapped in banana leaves. Each lady makes hers a little differently. Some make tamales with pork, rice and carrots; others with chicken, rice and vegetables.  Many times olives and/or  raisins are included.

Christmas is celebrated here on the 24th. That is when “el Niño” comes and brings presents to the children. Children are permitted to sit up until midnight. Many people are out in the streets; fireworks are going off all night long and children are allowed to open their presents after midnight. One doesn’t ask a Costa Rican child what Santa brought them for Christmas. Ones ask, “Qué le trajo El Niño?” (What did the Child bring you for Christmas)? The child is referring to Jesus. So they are basically saying that the child, Jesus, brings the gifts.

Of course our Christmas celebration is centered around church activities. There will be a party for the children, a Christmas drama for the church, and we will close out the year with a special service and tamales.

We may each celebrate Christmas a little differently, but how wonderful it is to celebrate God’s special love for us in sending His Son to earth to take our sins upon Him and to die in our place.

Costa Rican Tamale Recipe

  • 2 ¼ lbs banana leaves
  • 3 lbs pork, chicken or beef roast
  • 5 cups cooked rice
  • 2 ¼ lbs potatoes
  • 2 lbs instant corn masa mix
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground achiote
  • 1 bag of raisins or olives
  • Carrots/peas/green beans (opt.)
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic
  • Sweet red peppers
  • Onion
  1. Chop the meat into medium chunks and brown.
  2. Cook rice.
  3. Add 1-tablespoon salt, 1-tablespoon ground cumin and 1 teaspoon ground achiote to the masa and mix dry.  Add vegetable oil and broth.  Mix with hands to make a paste.
  4. Cut banana leaves into squares.  Spread 3-4 tablespoons of masa paste in the center and fill with potatoes, rice, meat, 2-3 raisins, and any other extra ingredients that you choose.
  5. Fold the banana leaves and tie with a cotton string.
  6. Cook the tamales in gently boiling water for one hour.
  7. “Buen provecho”  (Enjoy!)


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