Bucket list item #3 – celebrate Christmas in a foreign country

Christmas in Costa Rica

Roaring fires, presents under a lovingly decorated tree, family gathering together over a delicious roast dinner, novelty jumpers – that’s what Christmas means to me. It’s my favourite day of the year and no amount of scroogery (yep, that’s a word) will pop my festive bubble. Or bauble if you will. And yet this year, for the very first time, I found my self struggling to get into the traditional Christmas spirit.

Lying in wait for my Christmas spirit
Where oh where is my Christmas spirit?

OK, I have a confession to make. I have in fact spent Christmas in a foreign country a few times when I was younger – both in Canada, Italy and, a couple of times, in Germany – but these are all cold and snowy Winter countries where chestnuts on the fire and carols at midnight are still very much the norm. So in my constant quest for new experiences, I first penned this addition to my list with visions of palm trees, beaches and scorching hot weather shimmying through my mind. Last year, in beautiful Costa Rica, my vision would become a reality.

When I set about planning the trip, one of the things I was most excited about was the prospect of a unique Christmas experience, and I was confident it would be one of the high points of my travels. But as the day grew closer, I found my excitement levels remaining decidedly flat. My facebook feed was inundated with pictures from home; pictures of people standing proudly by their carefully selected tree, pictures of steaming mulled wine and delicately crafted gingerbread, pictures of smiling, jolly friends meeting for Christmas drinks. With my 7am starts and the decided lack of Christmas cheer in Coco, Costa Rica, I was starting to feel like Christmas would just pass me by this year.

The closest I got to a roaring fire in my Costa Rican Christmas“Ceci n’est pas un sapin de noël” – the closest I got to a traditional Christmas scene this year

Something had to be done.

One of my more recent but best loved traditions is having a “fake Christmas” with James. Despite having been together for years, we have never spent the ‘big day’ together before, choosing to visit our families separately instead. In lieu of the day itself, we’ve always nominated a day in the week before in which to celebrate as a couple; a kind of test run if you will. Being thousands of miles away from home and finding ourselves a little down in the Christmas dumps, we decided to replicate this endearing custom, hoping that a fake Christmas would get us geared up for the real deal.

Celebrating ‘fake Christmas’ over the years

We set about planning a day that would take us down memory lane and put the twinkle back into our December. Starting the day with a bottle of champagne wasn’t a tradition I was prepared to forgo, and we tucked into a bottle of Moët as soon as the sun had risen. Whereas we’re normally snuggled under a duvet, it felt odd sipping on fine wine in a T-shirt whilst the air-conditioning unit cranked out cold air, but it was nice to have a authentic taste of something that has become synonymous with Christmas for me over the years. Coupled with the unexpected arrival of a parcel of presents that had made it all the way from England, we were able to enjoy some home comforts that really set the tone for the rest of the day.

Moet in the morning

Normally, our mornings consist of preparing an extravagant roast dinner with all the trimmings, but this year normal wasn’t going to be an option. With nothing more than two feeble hotplates and a microwave to work with, a traditional roast was off the table. Instead, we decided to embrace local flavours and created an elaborate Central American feast. Spicy salsas and succulent pulled chicken, creamy guacamole and tangy coleslaw, hearty chilli and rich refried beans sprawled across the table which groaned under the weight of enough food to feed a whole contingent of elves.

Costa Rican Christmas fare

After washing it all down with one (or two) delicious glasses of Chilean wine, we took a stroll along the beach, marvelling at the feeling of hot sand scorching our soles in December. As we sipped our way through a couple of cocktails, watching as the russet sun dropped below the waves, I started to feel a balloon of contentment swelling in my chest, forcing out the dreary negativity that had been settling there before.

Celebrating Christmas in Costa Rica

Finally, as the night drew in and a hazy dark ascended over the beach, we headed home for a Love Actually marathon and a bucket load of chocolates. And it worked! By the time the 25th rolled around, I had had my first taste of festive excitement and was ready to embrace a new and exotic experience for 2015 and firmly tick off the ‘alternative Christmas’ box on my bucket list.

It didn’t take long. By 9am on Christmas Morning I was already submerged under 80 feet of water, surrounded by five white tip reef sharks. Lying on the sea bed, watching as these graceful and sleek predators swirled around me, I took a moment to remind myself of how lucky I am to be witnessing some of the most amazing sights this planet has to offer. With James by my side, it felt like the best Christmas present I could have asked for.

Diving in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

After the dives were over and the boat was back in the harbour, we trotted round to our friends’ house laden with goodies and ingredients. Once the potatoes were peeled and the roast in the oven, we headed up to their pool, aka the best view in Playas del Coco. Here we welcomed in a new tradition which I’d be happy to bring home and repeat every year – sipping on mimosas while the sun went down.

Christmas Day in Costa Rica

After the beautiful sunset and bubbly wine had left everyone with a festive, euphoric glow, we headed back down to the house where we proceeded to eat, drink and be as merry as the best of them. Like most travellers, the five of us tend to find ourselves fairly strapped for cash and the idea of buying extravagant gifts was hard to justify while we’re all counting the pennies. But a meagre budget did little to thwart our gift-buying enthusiasm. As Christmas Day neared, we’d all headed out into the centre of Coco with a $15 limit and a lot of imagination, on a quest to find a present for “invisible Santa” (as the Spanish call it). Opening these little token trinkets turned out to be one of the highlights of the day. Nothing was flashy, nothing was expensive, but the laughter and gratitude they provoked far made up for what they may have lacked in opulence.

Secret Santa on our Costa Rican Christmas Day Secret Santa on our Costa Rican Christmas Day Secret Santa on our Costa Rican Christmas Day Secret Santa on our Costa Rican Christmas Day Secret Santa on our Costa Rican Christmas Day

We watched midnight come and go, topping up our drinks as we launched merrily into our third rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing of the night. As the new morning began to stretch ahead of us, rambunctious carolling gave way to sleepy snoozing and we drifted off home like happy but tired little elves.

The experience of being away from old friends and family, of celebrating in the blazing heat, of diving in the morning and sipping cocktails on the beach in the afternoon was an entirely alien one to me. I am so pleased that I can tick this off my bucket list with such aplomb, and am pleased to have discovered new traditions that I can weave into the fabric of all my Christmases to come. Feliz nevidad!

Related Articles