Feliz Navidad In Panama
We’re just two days from Christmas, and, in Panama, parrots fly from palm tree to palm tree overhead, the heat doesn’t let up from its consistent 80+ degrees, but, nonetheless, the fact that the holidays are near is no less evident than it is in colder places around the globe…
Panama loves Christmas—you’ll hear carols on the radio in every store you visit (sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish)… every building of every type shows its spirit with large-scale decorations, garlands or ornaments, and, if they have the space, a full-sized nativity… and the capital city’s main drag, the Cinta Costera, is transformed into a Christmas wonderland.
Panama is a Catholic country, but there’s a sizeable Jewish population, too, so you’ll also catch the odd menorah and dreidel among the décor.
Although the typical light displays, wintry greens, and traditional red and green color palette aren’t as common, the country decks herself out in a rainbow of hues, bows, glitter, and ribbons. The technicolor displays may be shocking to newcomers. Purples, pinks, and oranges are just as popular for Christmas here as the traditional colors we’re used to.
Learn About Unique Traditions
Once you get out of the city, you’ll start to see a different kind of traditional decoration. Muñecos de año viejo (old-year dolls) or muñecos judas (Judas dolls) are life-sized scarecrow-style dolls that Panamanians make each December in order to light them afire at midnight on the last day of the year.
These effigies traditionally represent the bad of the year come before… maybe a politician, celebrity, or footballer who has earned the people’s ire… sometimes they’re more abstract. Filled with leaves and sometimes fireworks for extra bang, their burning is believed to destroy all the sins and evil of the year prior, giving you a clean slate for the coming year.
Throughout Panama’s interior, muñecos are displayed in front of houses, businesses, and along the roadside. If you’re driving around the country in December, you’re likely to spot a few.
There’s nothing stopping an expat in Panama from celebrating Christmas almost exactly like back home (other than the weather, of course). You’ll find all the same foods in supermarkets if you want them and pine trees are for sale everywhere.
But while there’s plenty of the familiar here, Christmas in Panama is celebrated with a unique Latin twist that involves many surprises for the northern newcomer.
The season kicks off on Dec. 8—the day of the Immaculate Conception. This also happens to be Mother’s Day every year and it’s an official holiday. No one goes to work this day and most stores are closed, so take the opportunity to decorate and start preparing for the holiday.
On Dec. 8, a parade of the Statue of the Blessed Virgin winds through the city, closely followed by children, some dressed as angels. For many of these children, this is the day of First Communion.
During the following days and weeks, nativities appear all over the city. These nacimientos are sometimes elaborate and most are life-sized. If you live in a house with a yard, make sure to put out your nativity around this time. Likewise, if you own a business, your office decoration is not truly completed to Panama-standard without a nativity (contrary to the secular practices of office decorating in the United States).
Las Posadas (“The Inns”) is a traditional Spanish celebration that takes place during the nine days leading up to Christmas and is practiced in some small towns and neighborhoods in Panama. This is the re-enactment of Mary and Joseph going door to door looking for lodging. People dress up and parade through their neighborhood, finally ending in the last house with carols (villancicos), food and drink, and a piñata for the kids.
Parades are also a major part of any holiday in Latin America, with children playing a major role. On several days this month, vibrant floats pass the Cinta Costera, followed by women in colorful pollera and children playing music and dancing.
Christmas in Panama
Christmas Eve is spent preparing food, much like back home. A Panamanian Christmas dinner likely includes turkey or ham, stuffing or arroz con pollo, arroz dulce, and tamales. The all-too-familiar fruit cake is a popular dessert here, as are various types of liqueur cakes. Ron ponche (eggnog) is another favorite.
As evening sets in, you’ll need to stay up feasting, drinking, and partying with your family all night—music is a major part of the celebration. After eating, many take to the streets of their neighborhood to dance and celebrate with neighbors.
Spectacular firework displays are a hallmark of holidays in Latin America, and Christmas in Panama is no different. Keep your eyes on the skies over the holiday… though you likely won’t miss them as the booming noises echo around the city. While you’ll likely get more than one display, the main event is midnight on Christmas Eve. Fireworks are how Panamanians ring in Christmas Day—with huge color, light, energy, and excitement. After the fireworks, you get to open your presents and finally hit the sack.
Christmas morning is spent at church. The rest of the day is spent with family, or going to travel to see farther-away relatives. The same foods are eaten today, as well.
The final celebration comes on Jan. 6, Epiphany on the Christian calendar, when Panamanians begin to burn their trees. Tree bonfires are a fun way to say goodbye to the season and are usually held with friends rather than family. You’ll see scorch marks and tree skeletons appearing throughout the city as people burn their trees.
If you’ve survived the holidays intact, you now have “summer” to look forward to—that lovely time of year when the rain lets up and the humidity dips. Now it’s time to get ready for the Bacchanalia that finds an entire country at play—carnaval…
If you’re thinking that Panama might be the place for you, I assure you the holidays won’t disappoint here. In fact, you’re likely to find that in many ways they offer a nice escape back to the traditional…
Outside all this holiday cheer, what’s it like to live day to day in Panama?
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