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The Lantern Parade in Costa Rica


Sunday, September 14, my wife and I were invited to our community school in Costa Rica for a lantern parade that turned into a history lesson.

As happens so often, we weren’t sure of the details, so we got to the school well after the festivities started. We hadn’t even known there would be festivities, but of course we should have guessed. Can anything happen in Costa Rica without festivities including food and music and fun?

Fortunately, we walked in the door just as the speakers cranked up one of several patriotic songs, so we were able to join our friends, hands over hearts, as the songs played and everyone sang along except us. One of my goals now is to memorize the words to the Costa Rica national anthem.

After the music, each of the students in the school, all four of them sized peanut to pre-teen, gave a presentation about national symbols. We learned that as of this year, the manatee is the national symbol of Costa Rica. We learned about the national tree, and the flag, and other national things.

What we didn’t learn was more complicated, and that is the background behind Costa Rica independence and the interest in candle lanterns. In brief:

When Mexico finally defeated Spain in their war of independence, representatives from across the Central American region met in Guatemala to declare their independence on September 15, 1821. As part of that process, people poured into the streets with candle lanterns to show their support and celebrate. A torch left Guatemala that day and arrived in Costa Rica a month later with the news.

At the time, Costa Rica had been a poor little piece of Spain’s empire that stretched from Mexico south. It had no gold or silver and no huge workforce to exploit, so it was pretty much ignored, left to its own devices. That sad plight was a huge advantage in the following years, allowing Costa Rica to develop differently from other American countries with liberal leadership, education as a value, and a more egalitarian approach to governance. When given the opportunity to determine its own fate, it became a standout peace-loving country in a region of chronic conflict.

When the patriotic speeches by the four students were finished and we had applauded loudly, we followed everyone outside, each person carrying their decorative candle-light lantern in remembrance of those heady days in Guatemala, and music playing loudly from a laptop with good speakers. The little parade slowly moved down the driveway and into the street until someone yelled “Bomba!” The music and everyone stopped.

Elian yelled out a four-line poem with a bit of a zinger in the last line. Everyone laughed and off we went again until someone else yelled “Bomba!” and comeone else called out another zinger. And so on for half an hour down and back, laughing, cheering and generally enjoying the happiness of one big family on an outing with a lot to celebrate.  Viva Costa Rica!

Theirs was an evening to remember. So was ours.