Costa Ricans begin their countdown to Christmas

In 2006 the Teatro Nacional portal featured a nativity scene a la Tico. Photo: A.M. Costa Rica file

With the Día de las Culturas in its wake, the country is moving headlong into the Christmas season. Already stores have Yule displays, and many Costa Ricans already are planning their 10-day escape from the Central Valley.

Christmas is on a Saturday this year, which means government offices will begin closing at mid-week and will stay closed through Jan. 3.

The traditional beginning of the Christmas season is Sunday, Nov. 28, this year. The last Sunday in November is the day the oxen parade downtown. Officially the event is called the Entrada de Santos y Boyeros. The Sunday parade is preceded by a festival of boyeros or ox drivers at Parque la Sabana. Then Sunday many of the carretas pulled by the giant beasts carry statues of saints. The route is from La Sabana up Paseo Colón to Avenida 2 where a reviewing stand is set up at Parque Central.

For employers the most painful time of the Christmas season is when they must pay their workers the aguinaldo or Christmas bonus. The Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social already has announced it will make this payment Dec. 1. Employers have until Dec. 15 to pay. The amount is one-twelfth of what an employee earned during the preceding 12 months.

With the lubrication of the Christmas bonus, retail sales swing into high gear. Prices have been known to climb, too.

Already groups of artists and technicians are at work on the carrozas or floats for the Festival de la Luz, which is Dec. 11 this year. An estimated 1 million spectators will view the elaborate parade. A dozen bands and a dozen companies or public agencies already have enrolled. The event is televised, and foreign networks often air segments.

The growth of the suburbs has taken some of the sparkle off San José Christmas events. Christmas events will take place in towns like San Antonio de Belén and Santa Ana, although on a smaller scale.

Costa Rica is unapologetically Roman Catholic, and the portal or nativity scene is standard at even public agencies. The Teatro Nacional has yet to announce the emphasis in the design of its portal this year. There have been rain forest

nativity scenes, Middle Eastern nativity scenes and a number of other variations on the theme. The economy seems to have affected these displays, too, and the portal last year was not elaborate.

The inauguration of the portal kicks off nightly entertainment downtown.

The Tope Nacional, the big horse parade in San José comes the day after Christmas. That also marks the opening of the Fiestas de Zapote, the carnival that attracts the thousands who did not go to the beach.

This even is not always certain, and typically the Ministerio de Salud drags out to the very last moment the issuance of final permits. One year flu and another year earthquake fears made the event uncertain.

All of the Christmas events are spectacular, but the amateur photographer does not want to miss the Costa Rican bull fights at the Zapote rondel. Here hundreds of would-be bull fighters get into the ring with a fighting bull and taunt the critter. Bulls have very short attention spans and only infrequently zero in on a tormentor. The rondel or bull ring has a built-in hospital.

All of the Christmas events are highly photogenic. Security officials make every effort to keep them safe. And for events such as the parade of lights, there are reserved seats and spots at private locations where tourists can get an unobstructed view of the line of march.

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