Thursday, 25 December 2008

¡Feliz Navidad!

Christmas arrived in Costa Rica before we did. Certainly by the time we arrived here on December 2nd, there were already distinct signs that Christmas was already here. We are not sure what gave it away: maybe it was the giant inflatable snowmen, or the illuminated candy canes in peoples gardens, or the fairy lights strung around houses and in the trees, or the pop-pop of fireworks going off every night, or the giant plastic portales (nativity scenes). Whatever it was that gave it away, it was clear that Christmas here lasts at least the entire month of December; probably helped along in good measure by the aguinaldo (an extra month’s salary paid to all workers in December).

With the exception of the giant plastic portales, much of the above is often seen in the UK. But for us, celebrating Christmas outside of the UK for the first time, it all seems a little surreal because of one important additional factor: it’s hot and sunny!

Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is usually the time for a family get together, exchanging of gifts and, for many Catholics, attendance at Misa de Gallo (Christmas Eve mass, traditionally at midnight but now often earlier). We were invited to share a meal with our friends, Peter & Victoria, and their daughter, Caty. We have to admit that in spite of all the decorations, the feeling of Christmas didn’t actually hit us until we were welcomed into their home last night.

To start with Colin was treated to a lovely mulled wine, warm and very Christmassy. The main course was pretty traditional (in UK terms; this and the mulled wine were probably influenced by Peter!) in that it was roast chicken with various vegetables. It was also very tasty and did make a nice change from rice and beans for us. (Zoë would like to point out that we aren’t JUST eating rice & beans … sometimes we have beans & rice, and maybe even a salad too ;) )

After a break to let our main course digest, during which we sang some villancicos (Christmas songs/Carols) in Spanish, and then English, it was time for pudding (postre). Imported apples are a special treat at Christmas time here, and every year Victoria makes a Christmas apple pie. This was served last night much to the delight of Colin, who reckons you can’t get a better postre than apple pie and ice cream.
Following the meal, as midnight approached, it was time to open presents. Zoë thinks this is fantastically civilised; she has forgotten how many times she has asked to open “just one present” on Christmas Eve, and always been denied.

Children here traditionally receive their gifts from niño Jesús (a.k.a. el Niño), but with traditions all over the world now becoming mixed up it is unsurprising that dear old Santa Claus is now a popular figure here. In order not to lose the niño Jesús tradition, it is often said that Santa Claus is his messenger.

Although we had a fantastic time and really delicious meal on Christmas Eve, we wanted to try something that in Costa Rica is very much associated with Christmas: tamales. Apparently, Costa Rican tamales are different from Mexican ones. But since we have never had Mexican tamales we can’t comment on this. Basically, a Costa Rican tamal is a mixture of corn dough with vegetables and meat, wrapped in plantain or banana leaves and then boiled. Tamales here usually come as a pair tied together with string (called una piña de tamales)

This video will give you the general idea:

(We do wonder why the dog in this video is so quiet. Our experience of dogs in Costa Rica suggests they like to bark. A lot. Perhaps this one has eaten too many tamales already?)

And this page has a great description and recipe if you're feeling adventurous:

We clearly didn’t make our tamales from scratch (too much work and not enough experience!) so instead purchased readymade ones from the supermarket and had them for lunch today (December 25th).
Verdict: quite tasty, but like post-Christmas Turkey we wouldn’t want to have them every day!

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