Reflections on Christmas in Costa Rica

We’ve been in Costa Rica for five months now, through some big holidays, first Thanksgiving, and now, Christmas. Christmas is an important holiday for both of our families back home in the United States, filled with traditions going back for generations. We weren’t sure how Christmas would be for us here in Costa Rica since we would be on our own, away from our families and all of the familiar traditions. Christmas ended up being a little different, of course, but special in its own way.


Santa Surfer Costa Rica Picture

Some background on our Christmas traditions back home in the States

Matt’s extended family on his dad’s side hosts an elaborate celebration for Christmas Eve. When we first started dating, I always felt intimated to go to the big Houde Christmas Eve extravaganza because there were just so many people. Matt’s dad is one of seven so you can imagine how big the family is today with all of the generations having their own children. The celebration begins with some family members attending Christmas Eve mass and the party kicks off afterwards. A different person hosts every year but the traditions are always the same: a fun Yankee swap with lots of gag gifts, Janet’s hot buttered rum, Scott’s decadent peanut butter balls, and plenty of time for catching up over wine and cocktails. Then on Christmas Day Matt’s immediate family, his parents and sister who lives local, have an elaborate brunch at home complete with mimosas followed by opening presents around the tree with the fireplace burning in the background. If we’re lucky, there might even be a light snow flurry outside the steaming glass windows to really make it feel like Christmas.

My family is much smaller but we like to pretend it is bigger than it actually is with an elaborate celebration of our own and way too much food. Christmas Eve is usually at my aunt’s house and Christmas Day at my grandmother’s. Since Matt and I have been splitting our time between our families over the holidays for the past several years, we usually go to his extended family’s big party on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day with my family. My grandmother goes all out for the big day, with a tree glittering with tinsel, nutcrackers lining the entertainment center, and even a nativity scene. Everyone contributes by bringing a dish. Though we like to switch it up, there’s always the broccoli soufflé that my mom used to make, green bean casserole, pasta salad for the picky eaters, and a classic Christmas ham with pineapples. Travis, my uncle, is famous for his over-the-top desserts that we’re always too stuffed to eat but somehow find room for every year.

Matt and I love these Christmas traditions and it was hard to be away for the holidays this year. We missed our family and friends and were finding it tough to get into the holiday spirit because it just didn’t feel like Christmas time. The weather was warm, we weren’t going to holiday parties, and though Christmas is a big deal in Costa Rica, it isn’t as commercial as in the United States so we weren’t getting the constant reminders on TV and on the radio. Both of us started to get into a bit of a funk without realizing it so we decided we needed to have our own Christmas party. We wouldn’t have a tree or the cold and snow (we were fine with that part), but we would make the day special.

My first task was to figure out one of the most important elements of a proper Christmas, second only to loved ones, of course: food. I studied Costa Rican Christmas recipes and, after much deliberation, decided on a menu for the big day. Originally I thought I would make authentic Costa Rican tamales, little packages of masa (corn flour), meat, and vegetables wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed in boiling water. But finding the right leaves for wrapping proved difficult in Puerto Viejo. Plus, after watching some videos online, tamales seemed like a little too much work for a small group so I ended up making empanadas. Though they aren’t a traditional Costa Rican Christmas dish, they certainly are authentic and a long way from what we’re used to eating for Christmas. We settled on some other appetizers to go along with the empanadas: locally made goat cheese and crackers, tomato-basil bruschetta, olives that we had brought back from a recent trip to Panama, and homemade mango and strawberry tartlets with vanilla ice-cream for dessert. Many of these items were a big treat; as we’ve mentioned in past posts, gourmet foods in Costa Rica, like any cheese other than fresh Tico cheese, are very expensive. But it was Christmas so we decided to splurge. I had also made some homemade eggnog which we spiked with our favorite Guatemalan rum.


Homemade Eggnog Picture


To the sounds of some online Christmas music, we spent the evening with our neighbor, Neil, the on-site property manager. Over a nice bottle of wine that Neil had brought, we shared stories. Neil is from South Africa and has traveled throughout the world and extensively in Central America. After years of travel, he finally landed in Puerto Viejo and has been living there for the past ten years. He has some amazing stories and it was great to hear about his personal experiences living in Costa Rica. After Neil left, Matt and I settled down on the couch for a classic Christmas movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, with a little more eggnog and the Christmas lights twinkling on the porch.

The day wasn’t completely without family though. Thankfully, earlier we had Skyped with Matt’s family who were gathered in Florida this year and with my family as well. It was great to see everyone’s faces and watch them have the same celebrations we had enjoyed for years. Talking to them really made us feel at home, even if it was just for a short time.

Our first Christmas in Costa Rica was a special day. We weren’t physically with our own families but we still had an amazing celebration. It will certainly be a memorable one too, as our first Christmas in Costa Rica.

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Our first Christmas in Costa Rica was a big “first” in our journey of moving here. We’re looking forward to the New Year and all of the new firsts it will bring.

Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde



  1. Delighted to hear that it was a successful Christmas! How did New Year’s Eve shape up? I bet that there were many friends back home who missed you terribly during the countdown to 2014.

    1. Hola Frau Schenck, New Years was low key here but we did see some fireworks from the surrounding towns in our new neighborhood. To our friends back home who shall remain nameless, we missed you terribly as well 🙂

  2. Hi Jenn and Matt!

    I have loved following your blog. You have so many relevant posts and I’ve wanted to comment on several of them! This one about Christmas made me pull the trigger 🙂 My boyfriend and I booked a trip to Costa Rica over Christmas and I, too, am wondering how it will be different than all the traditions I’m used to. I’m nervous about being away from home but the more I research how beautiful and different this country is, the more excited I get!


    1. Hi Kristina, thanks for the kind words. Christmas will be different for you this year, I’m sure, but a lot of things will be the same. It’s still a big family day but with different food and it’s a lot warmer 🙂 Are you staying somewhere with a good Internet connection? Being able to Skype with our family was key last year. This year we’re going to Peru for the holidays but made sure our Airbnb rental has a good connection so we can talk to our families back home. Let us know if you have any last minute questions as you plan your trip. Thanks for reading our blog!

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