Tag Archives: traditions

The Godfathers


If you ever get invited to a wedding in another culture, you should go.   Without hesitation- just go.  It will be so worth it!  We were honored to be invited to the church wedding of two of the young people that we have been working with the past 3 years.  (The civil ceremony which makes the wedding legal happened a few days before.)  The first thing we attempted to do was to discover the protocol for gift giving.  What kind of gift is appropriate to give?  How much money are guests expected to spend?  Are gifts brought to the ceremony or sent to the house ahead of time?  Is there any such thing as a gift registry?  Those are the questions we asked.

The answers were not so easy to come by.  After asking many people, both gringos and Ticos we learned that there were some upscale stores that do a gift registry.  Our couple had listed a store on their invitations… though often times there is no formal paper invitation to be had since there is no mail service delivered directly to the houses here… because there are no addresses, obviously.  Duh.  However, we were given a hand delivered invitation with the name of a store on it.  My husband proceeded to ask around for the location of the store.  He eventually found a website with no wedding registry information on it, but he did find the phone number.  After many calls to the store which was in a different city, my husband placed an order for a gift and asked for it to be delivered to the couple… after we got directions to the house where they were going to live.

So we thought that we all set.  We were familiar with the city where the wedding would be held and Josh had actually been to the church before, so we were good.  The last time we tried to go to a wedding in another town we spent 6 hours wandering lost in the mountains before we decided that we probably missed the wedding and we should just head home.  Turns out weddings don’t start on time either.  We probably could have made it still.

On our way to the wedding, the store called and asked when Josh wanted to come pick up the gift.  He was shocked!  He told them, “You were supposed to deliver the gift yesterday!  If you deliver it today, no one will be at the house.  They are all at the church!”  So after some bickering back and forth, they agreed to have someone deliver the gift the following day.  Strike one for the wedding guests.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

When we arrived at the church, we were sure the ceremony would not be starting on time.  The groom was standing out front waiting for us.  Josh whispered to me, “Oh I hope they don’t ask me to say anything spur of the moment!”  Well he lucked out, all the groom wanted to know was if we would be the “Padrinos” or Godparents of the newly weds.  My husband said we would be honored, but what do the Padrinos do?  The groom laughed like we were making a joke and said, “Oh, you just pay for the wedding.”  (Costa Ricans love teasing and sarcasm.)  And we all laughed… nervously.  We still had no clue what was expected of us.

As we walked into the sanctuary, I grabbed the sister of the groom and whispered, “Where do we sit and what do the Godparents do?”

She shrugged and pointed to the back of the center aisle.  “Just wait here for instructions.”  She said it didn’t matter which side we sat on.  We chose seats in the middle of one of the sections since we didn’t want to presume that the Padrinos would walk down the aisle or be seated at the front.  We were wrong in our humble assumptions.  Strike two for the gringos.

I was actually surprised that we started within an hour of when the invitation said the wedding would start.  I had heard that often times the time on the invitation is when the wedding preparations start for the bride.  So if the wedding starts at 10:00 am, that means the bride will be getting in the shower at 10:00.  The family might sit down to lunch while she gets ready and by 3:00 pm, everyone will be making their way to the church.  No one really knows when the service will actually start.  And no one is bothered by this except the Americans.

In Costa Rica, there is an M.C. that directs the ceremony calling each person down in their proper order like fashion models walking down the cat walk.  “And now we have the grandmother of the bride being escorted by her grand-nephew.  And now we have the Padrinos, please walk to the front Josh and April.”  We hastily jumped up from our seats, ran up the side aisle and walked back down the center aisle together.  At the head of the aisle I looked to the announcer for directions about which side to sit on or if we were supposed to come up on the stage or stay standing along the front like groomsmen.  He was already on to the next fashion models and we were left awkwardly standing at the front.  We slid discretely down into the front pew.  Strike three for the totally lost Padrinos.

Both sets of parents sat across the aisle from us in the front pew and the sister of the groom sat next to me.  It was all totally disorganized and no one seemed to care.  When we realized that we were the only ones who were bothered by this, we let the blush cool on our cheeks and relaxed our tense shoulders.  “Pura Vida” we whispered to each other.  That is the Costa Rican motto which really means “No worries mon!”  Just go with the flow.

After the ceremony we were uncertain what would happen next.  The announcer did something totally surprising.  He said, “If anyone wants their picture with the bride and groom, just come up on the stage.”  So for an hour the guests pushed and cajoled for a spot in line to have their picture taken with the new couple.  It was like a mad receiving line with iPhone cameras flashing everywhere.  Totally disorganized, and again, no one cared.

We didn’t know if there was a reception somewhere.  We didn’t see any gifts on a table anywhere.  (For the record, I did see some relatives whisk some packages into a car earlier on.)  We loitered around the back of the sanctuary talking with guests and family, waiting for some kind of sign.  When the groom finally said he had to get going, we figured that was the end of it.  We headed home to San Jose… hungry.

I had heard of weddings where there was indeed a beautiful cake on a table, but it turned out that the cake was cardboard and only one little disk at the top was real for cutting for the photo.  It seems that Hollywood has influenced Costa Rican culture in a way where young couples thought they wanted a cake since that’s what they do in the movies, but no one knew what to do with it.  And since cakes can be insanely expensive here (Most people don’t bake or even know how to use their ovens.  They store their Tupperware in their ovens.) they opt for a fake cake that looks good in the pictures.  So I was bracing for no cake.  I was quite shocked at no reception at all.  Strike four for the hungry Godparents.

The lessons we learned at the wedding made us feel honored that our friends had opened this cultural portal for us.  We left feeling proud to have navigated another pot-hole filled mile of culture and for having not embarrassed ourselves too badly by not knowing what was going on.  We were able to “roll with the punches” and we survived.  Plus we learned that not much flusters a Costa Rican, so we should just relax and enjoy the Pura Vida too.

Please pass the “Salad of Lettuce”


When we lived in Mexico, we invited our Mexican friends over for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  I included tortillas for a touch of familiarity for our friends, but I assure you that was the first time that tortillas were present on my Thanksgiving table.  I remember one of the little boys sat staring at his plate, dumbfounded.  Then he whispered loudly to his mother, “Que es esto?/ What is this?”

She quickly shushed him and explained hurriedly, “Es ensalada de lechuga./ It’s salad of lettuce.”  I stiffled a giggle at her description.  I can only imagine what turkey and mashed potato tacos tasted like to them.  But they ooh-ed and ahh-ed appropriately throughout the meal.  Then once I brought out the pumpkin pie, they thought they died and went to heaven!  From then on, I have had regular requests from my friends (in both Costa Rica and Mexico) to make pumpkin pie at all times of the year.

Last year, I made 11 pies during the month of November.  Each time my Latino friends rolled their eyes in ecstasy as they savored every bite.  Then they asked for the recipe.  I doubt that any of them will actually USE the recipe, since it’s much easier to just ask the Gringa to bring a pie.  But they loved it.

So at the end of last November, I cleared out the store shelf and bought a dozen cans to last throughout the year.  Wouldn’t you know it, this is the year that the store decided to stock pumpkin pie filling ALL YEAR LONG.  They’ve never had it year round until the year I stock up.  Well, never mind, I’ve been well prepared all year.

So I started THIS holiday season off right.  This past weekend I made 5 pies.  Some were for the school bake sale this week, and others were to treat my kids’ classmates to a bite of spicy heaven.  But my middle daughter has decided that she does not want to share her pie with her friends.  She would rather keep the pie here at home and make some less-coveted treat like pumpkin bars or chocolate chip cookies for her friends.  I assured her, I have more pie where those came from!

Imported Holidays


We don’t have Halloween here in Costa Rica.  It’s still considered a pagan holiday from America.  I’ve noticed that the Fanta (soda pop) company has put up billboards with silhouettes of bats and jack-o-lanterns, but nothing over the top spooky.  It’s just not accepted here.  Some of the grocery stores dabble in selling pumpkins, but there aren’t many sold, even fewer carved, and most people only buy them as a novelty… secretly wondering how to eat the thing.  We bought 3 mini pumpkins to decorate the coffee table at home, and that is the entirety of our Halloween festivities.

I have to say, it’s really nice not to have that pressure anymore.  I don’t have to create a costume for each kid, with the ever-increasing pressure to out-do my last years’ creations.  I don’t have to buy any candy for greedy monsters and sugar-high superheros.  I don’t have to man the front door and sweat it out, hoping that my stash of goodies lasts until the last group passes by.  And I don’t have to chase my kids around an over crowded harvest celebration, trying to keep their fairy wings and wigs in place while they bounce through the carnival games and “jumpy house”.  My kids only know what Halloween is from watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and from the pictures that families post on Facebook of their kids at harvest parties and church pumpkin parties.  The whole holiday is kind of on the perimeter of our awareness, but no one really cares.  I’m happy about that.

The one new, imported “holiday” that I got a kick out of last year was “Black Friday”.  Even though Costa Ricans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, somehow the concept of Black Friday sales appeared in malls all over the country just last year.  But I thought it was funny that often the prices were not actually SALE prices and the Black Friday Sales lasted until the following Monday or Wednesday, no biggie.  So the concept is slowly catching on, just not the actual DETAILS of the “holiday”.

And I have to say, I hope it never catches on like it has in America.  Black Friday has become very frightening to those of us not obsessed with shopping.  I just can’t fathom the emotional rush that a sale can ignite in people.  The obsession to possess has in actuality possessed the obsessed!  But for Costa Rica’s sake, I hope it never gets as out of hand as it has gotten in America.  I hope they never make “Black Friday” a real holiday here… nor Halloween for that matter.  We are better off without the stress and hype of both of those imported holidays.  But I won’t object if someone sends me their left over Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Butterfingers.

Let’s give the children fire!


This weekend we will be celebrating Costa Rica’s Independence Day.  Tonight at our school we will be participating in a special parade that will be duplicated in every neighborhood containing a school.  The Independence Day celebrations begin with a “running of the torch”.  Our original colonial government was based in Guatemala.  So every year a torch is run from Guatemala down through El Salvador and Nicaragua to Costa Rica.  It takes a few weeks, but the children do a mini-torch run around the block around the school.

We also have a special parade around the school where all the children carry lanterns.  The lanterns are called “Faroles” and they are usually homemade paper houses… swinging on a string tied to a stick… with a candle inside.  Yeah.  The whole thing has disaster written all over it.

I asked a friend of mine once, “Don’t the faroles ever catch on fire?”

She laughed and said, “Oh yes!  All the time!  Every year someone gets hot wax spilled on them or catches their lantern on fire.  It’s really dangerous, but we still do it every year.”  I laughed nervously.

Then I remembered another conversation I had a few years ago.  I showed one of my Mexican friends a picture of my husband and son ice fishing on a frozen lake in Minnesota.  She had never heard of lakes freezing over.  I explained that when the ice gets a few inches thick, we drive cars out to the middle and park a little house on the ice.  We cut a hole in the ice and sit in the house and fish through the hole.  My friend was totally shocked!

“Don’t the cars ever fall through the ice?”  she quizzed me.

“Oh yes!”  I laughed, “Every year some idiot tries to drive on the ice before it’s thick enough and he falls in.  Then they have to either haul the car out with a winch or wait until spring.”  This did nothing to erase the shocked look from her face.

So tonight I will be giving my children their homemade faroles with little battery operated LED lights in them instead of the traditional candles.  I don’t see any reason why we should give the children fire and tell them to run around the block in a herd.  I think that’s just asking for trouble.  We’ll see how it goes.

Far Away Traditions


Yesterday I rearranged my teaching schedule in order to take my kids to the 4th of July picnic sponsored by the U.S. Embassy here in Costa Rica.  It was obvious from the get-go that this was an American event because the parking lot was already filling up a half hour BEFORE the opening time.  The neat line to enter was long and regularly spaced giving each family group ample elbow room… very UN-Latino.  We joked that the gate was opening exactly on time.  We were all Americans here, it’s exactly what we expected.  No one pushed or cut in line because that would have violated the American sense of order and fairness.

It cost the equivalent of $10 to get in, but once inside the grounds the free food and drinks were plentiful.  My children were chanting “Cotton Candy!  Cotton Candy!” as I handed the volunteer our passports at the entrance.  Our first stop was the Cafe Britt stand and the Boston Bagels stand, of course. Then at 9:15 we picked up our first free cotton candy puffs.  It was a day for liberal parenting.

There were traditional picnic games like a water balloon toss, a sack race and an egg on a spoon race.  There were home-made carnival games for the little ones like ring toss and bean bag toss and fishing games.  Lucy came home with a bag full of prizes and candy from her raid.  She’s got her Daddy’s love of games and winning.  We ate frozen yogurt and cotton candy and hot dogs and drank bottled water and soda and cappuccino.  I think my kids each ate 3 huge cotton candy puffs.

The highlight of the day was the ceremonial flag raising and the speeches by the President of the American Colony and the U.S. Embassador.  A special guest of the day was the Embassador from the Netherlands.  Apparently it’s tradition to honor the Netherlands who was the first country to support our revolution against England and the first country to officially recognize our independence.

When the brass military band struck up the chords of the “Star Spangled Banner” I choked down a knot in my throat.  I was proud of my country so far away.  I wiped the tears away with my finger when the Pledge of Allegiance was said.  My children know both the Costa Rican National Anthem and the American Pledge of Allegiance.  I looked around and saw tears glistening in the eyes of my fellow expats.  Just because we live far away doesn’t mean we don’t still love our beautiful America.

It was such a wonderful day, full of traditions and classic picnic charm.  I’m really glad we went.  Lucy told me she would dream about the day when she went to bed last night.  After I put the girls to bed, I sat out on our patio enjoying a few moments of quiet and the cool evening breeze.  I prayed.  I thought.  I relaxed.  And as I sat there I watched a storm rise up on the horizon.  The lightening hopping from cloud to cloud illuminated the entire sky with a natural fire works show. God displays his majesty in the clouds.  His power is fierce and awe-inspiring.  I thanked God for a show to rival any fireworks in America.  I thanked God for today.