It's always fun to learn how others celebrate life, holidays, and special occasions. At EPI, we have the opportunity to learn of them first hand, and you do, too! We asked someone at every EPI program site—Belize, Costa Rica, Galapagos, Mexico, and Yellowstone— to tell us about their favorite holiday traditions in their country. We hope you learn something and share your holiday traditions in the comments below. Happy holidays!
Belize If an American were to visit Belize over Christmas, they might feel right at home. Many of Belize’s Christmas traditions were inherited from the British during colonization, including Christmas trees, reindeer, gifts, Santa, carols, and even model snowmen. Over a month before December 25th, Belizeans begin their holiday planning and shopping. They string lights on their houses, set up elaborate manger scenes, and attend the annual Christmas parade.
There are few traditions, however, that are distinctly Belizean. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a very popular time for home improvements. Supplies like paint and lumber, which are typically very expensive in Belize, go on sale, and people across the country spruce up their homes in preparation for welcoming extended family.
For Christmas dinner, you can expect large portions of rice and beans with turkey and ham, potato salad, and cranberry sauce. Black cake, white cake, wine, and soft drinks are the most common desserts. And in Mestizo communities in northern Belize, tamales are also served.
In southern Belize, Garifuna people perform a traditional dance, the Wanaragua (or John Canoe). The drummers and dancers go from house to house performing for families who invite them in. At the end of the fifteen-minute performance, the family typically offers the performers a donation.
On New Year’s Eve, each main town in Belize has a large fireworks display. Belize City holds a music festival and the Cycling Classic, which tends to draw a huge crowd of spectators along the highway to view cyclists riding from the northern border of Belize to Belize City, a distance of about 90 miles. Costa Rica
Like most Latin American countries, Costa Rica goes big on Christmas. A majority of its population is Catholic, so many families have Nativity scenes or, as it’s known in Costa Rica, Pasito de Belén with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, in addition to their Christmas trees. El Festival de la Luz or Festival of Lights is a very popular parade with music, cars, dancers, and a whole lot of lights!
Children in Costa Rica are especially lucky because they don’t have to wait until Christmas morning to open their presents. Costa Ricans place all presents under the tree on December 24 and then wait in anticipation until midnight when, in a flurry of happiness, all the children open their presents.
On Christmas morning, whole families gather at the grandparent’s house to spend the day preparing tamales together – a very special activity in Costa Rica. Every family member cooks something different for the dinner, so dinners are always large and delicious, typically with tamales, rompope (an eggnog-like drink), Christmas cake, grapes and apples, and wine.
If you find yourself in Costa Rica on New Year’s Eve, you’ll probably recognize the fireworks display and the midnight celebration, but you’ll also get to enjoy “last day” activities, like playing the last fútbol game and big family barbecues. At midnight be sure to make a toast of wine and give your fellow Costa Ricans hugs and well-wishes for the New Year.
Galapagos & Mainland Ecuador
Christmas is a very important day in Ecuador and Galapagos Islands. The big meal on Christmas Eve is practically a family reunion with even in-laws attending. With more hands to help cook, the main family meal is elaborate and large, usually consisting of roasted turkey or spiced pork loin along with canelzo, a warm cinnamon-spiced cocktail. Guests secretly bring presents for the children. In the evening, some adults leave the house with the children in search of the star of Bethlehem, the star that led the Wise Men to Christ’s manger, while the adults who stayed at the house place the presents under the Christmas tree to the joy of the returning children.
On New Year’s Eve, Ecuadorians celebrate Años Viejos (Old Years), an activity that represents leaving the year’s failures and problems behind. Physical representations of the Old Years are scarecrows made of sawdust and paper, often in the image of a politician or celebrity. These scarecrows are paraded around the country and then set on fire at midnight!
Leading up to Christmas, religious Mexicans celebrate Las Posadas, nine days of religious observance, in which families participate in nightly outdoor processions to re-create the Holy Pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Others celebrate Posadas with gifts, dinners, and piñatas.
Like locals at EPI’s other program sites, Mexicans decorate both with Nativities and Christmas trees. Some families celebrate with Santa Claus who puts gifts under the tree for good children, but most families have Jesus or Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), who bring toys to children on El Día De Los Reyes, January 6th. On that day, families have hot cocoa and Rosca de Reyes (King’s Ring). The most common dishes around the holidays are pavo (turkey), bacalao (a delicious cod dish), pork, punch, and buñuelos (sweet fritters).
On New Year’s Eve, as the countdown to midnight begins, everyone eats 12 grapes, representing 12 wishes. Some Mexicans eat lentils as a symbol of abundance; bars placed on the outside of the house represent keeping out all the bad of the previous year, and if someone wears red they wish to attract love, or yellow to attract wealth.
In Yellowstone National Park, almost all of the roads in the park close, giving the park over to the wildlife for the winter. While the inhabitants of this program site don’t have anthropocentric holidays like Christmas and New Year’s, they certainly have their share winter traditions. Wildlife grow bushier coats and don their winter/holiday looks. The bison, in particular, are notable—the hair on their legs becomes quite impressive. Some say that around the holidays the bison look like they've put on bell bottoms. It's all part of 'stayin' alive!' in the cold temps.
A popular Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem holiday activity for humans is to experience the sleigh rides at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, WY, adjacent to Grand Teton National Park, as well as a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Mammoth Hot Springs in northern Yellowstone.
Photo credit: Claudio Toledo and Yellowstone National Park