Christmas Panama Style

This will be our 9th Christmas in Panama and, after 34 years in the snowy, icy environs of Washington, DC and its suburbs, seeing all the palm trees with little lights still makes me think wistfully of past Christmas Eves by the fire, the caroling in the neighborhood while the fluffy white flakes came down, all that Currier and Ives stuff that we actually lived.  You hear this lament all the time from folks who’ve moved far south, particularly from those in Florida.  But, after all, we did make the decision to come to Central America and we came because it has its own unique and very special qualities.

One year in Washington we had 17 – seventeen! — ice storms. A friend from Asheville, North Carolina stopped by to spend a couple of nights with us and stayed a whole month.  It was at that point the seed was planted in my mind. Somewhere warm. A place where you don’t have to count on a mid-winter visit to the doctor because of a torn or broken whatever that you got when you were bouncing off the ice.

And, Panama certainly meets those criteria. It also has enough going for it in the Christmas department to make up for the snowy holidays of many miles north.  First and most important – ALERT, if you’re politically correct, this is the time to terminate reading. For all others – people here LOVE Christmas.  They love it in the banks. They love it in the government buildings, they love it in the schools, they love it in the town square. Everyone, but everyone loves Christmas.  When Midnite comes on the 24th, the Panamanians shoot off enormous, glorious displays of fireworks. It’s a great and joyous scene.fireworks

There are lots of different Christmas traditions here, depending on your part of the country. In some areas, on December 17th, the ceremony of  Las Posada is held. las posadasPeople dress up as Mary and Joseph and go house to house in their fruitless search of a place in the “inn.” While they never find that elusive accommodation, they are greeted at the final house with singing, plenty of food and even piñatas.

In most parts of the country, Dia de los Reyes, the day of the Epiphany, is celebrated and  children are given small gifts.

In Panama City itself, the action takes place at the beach where a huge Christmas tree is lit with much ceremony, accompanied by Navidad villanciaos, or Christmas carols. This is an event that brings out many of the churches, who congregate and serve hot cocoa and Christmas cookies. As dusk falls, there is a fireworks display followed by a truly beautiful parade of spectacularly lit boats.

christmas boat

Christmas Day in Panama is for family and Christmas dinner is much anticipated. Typical dishes are turkey and stuffing, chicken tamales, Arroz con Pollo, a special Panamanian chicken and rice preparation, accompanied by a long list of side dishes. Desserts are big bowls of fruit, fruitcake, special braided sweetbreads, and the ubiquitous pie limon. Instead of egg nog, Panamanians indulge in Ron Ponche.

When we left Maryland, there was a lot of controversy over Christmas. In  Montgomery County, where we lived, school children were not allowed  to wear red and green clothes in the month of December, poinsettias were banned in government buildings, and the County Council was trying to remove Santa from the annual Christmas parade.

There’s none of that here. Surprisingly — at least to me, there are many active faiths in Panama.  I had expected to find an overwhelmingly Catholic country. It is and there is evidence of it everywhere — crosses, madonnas and other religious symbols dot office walls, are ensconced along public and private roads alike, and there are many churches and a voluminous number of religious processions. But, there are very visible other religions — Bahá’í believers are in evidence, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists, and others have churches and schools attended by children of all faiths.  There is a small Jewish community as well as a small Muslim one.The important thing is that everyone gets along and Christmas is a season that almost everyone seems to participate in.

That, in itself, makes up for the loss of the Currier and Ives Christmases.   Even as I write this, someone is sending up fireworks and I can hear the crashes and booms echoing off the mountains.  Sounds like a big display. I think I’d better get out there on the terrace and see for myself. Like everyone else here, I don’t want to miss a moment of the fun.

Hope you have some joyous crashes and booms in your holiday season, too. Merry Christmas everyone!

~~Jane Vasarhelyi

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3 thoughts on “Christmas Panama Style

  1. Las Posada sounds wonderful. So many people think Santa Claus is Christmas. And, I wouldn’t mind playing in Panama right now. Yesterday saw me sliding down my walk to get to my car which was encased in ice. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!

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