Celebrating Christmas with Latino and Indigenous Families in Panama

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"Celebrating Christmas with Latino and Indigenous Families in Panama".

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Celebrating Christmas with Latino and Indigenous Families in Panama

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Usually I try to be home for Christmas with my family in the USA since that is the only time I really get to be with them since I relocated to Panama, but during my two years in the Peace Corps, I spent Christmas and New Years with my Panamanian family. In fact, during my time in Panama I have been able to see several different sides of the Panamanian holidays by sharing with a wide variety of families.

My first Christmas away from home in the USA was spent with a very special lady. I went back to visit my host mother from my Peace Corps training about half a year prior. Mama Ruperta had been so supportive and kind to me during my first 10 weeks in Panama and made my transition so much easier, and it was wonderful to see her again. My Spanish had improved to where I could hold a decent conversation without too much struggle, though my host brothers still tried to joke and trip me up on purpose. Yes, I like fishing. No, I don´t want to "go fishing” (for men) - aka "pescar".

Me with my first host mother in Panama
Me with my first host mother in Panama.

Like many Panamanian holidays, as I see it, Christmas and New Years are essentially a carbon copy of each other, only one of them features Baby Jesus. They both revolve around food and family, with a good deal of fireworks, loud music, and alcohol thrown into the mix. Basically it is a chance to eat a lot and have fun with each other. I helped to cook some of the typical Christmas foods, including the old party staples arroz con pollo, pink potato salad, and tamales. They also had ham, turkey, apples, grapes, fruitcake (yes, apparently they have picked up the fruit cake tradition), a christmas wreath-shaped bread called rosca, hot chocolate, eggnog, cookies, oranges, watermelon, more cookies, cake, and double helpings of everything all over again. At Mama Ruperta´s, I was given so much food literally every hour of the day and halfway into the night that I suffered from constant indigestion, which combined with the heat was pretty uncomfortable.

Me and my host brother preparing patacones.
Me and my host brother preparing patacones.

Christmas in Panama is definitely not a "silent night." On Christmas Eve and New Years everyone stays up late, and at midnight they wish each other a merry Christmas and they shoot off fireworks (well, to be fair, they also shoot off fireworks the whole day before and after as well). In addition to that, many nearby houses were blasting reggaetón, salsa, and típico at full volume ALL NIGHT LONG, while half the town was up barbecuing and drinking the night away. I brought my earplugs, but they really didn´t do much more than muffle the noise that was shaking the entire house. After staying up late, I was so sleepy that I slept through it all anyway.

The next week, I spent New Years in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé with my host family neighbors, which is an entirely different experience. First, since I would usually frequent any community gatherings, I went to observe the evangelical conference that is held each year during New Year in Lajitas, which is right near Chichica where I lived. There were thousands Ngäbe people camping out under the trees with their makeshift tents made from tarps and sheets of plastic, with the essential cooking supplies loaded up in chakara bags and pots of rice cooking over campfires. Since there aren´t a whole lot of latrines in the area, I avoided stepping in the stream as I crossed the camp. I didn´t see a lot of people I knew since many of them were from out of town, but I did get to talk with some people. There were a few foreign missionaries as well, and they explained to me about their missionary work and translating the Bible and hymns into Ngäbere. As I listened to the talks in both Spanish and Ngäbere (the latter not so well understood by me, but I could kind of get the gist), around 11:00 pm the program ended and I walked home.

Makeshift campsite to celebrate the New Year
Makeshift camp site to celebrate the New Year.

There happened to be a splendid full moon that night, and I didn´t even need a flashlight to get home, so I spent the 20-minute walk home alternately enjoying the bright, beautiful night and stepping past some men already drunk and passed out on the road before New Year´s Eve had even finished. About 100 yards from my house, far from the main road, I heard a growling sound coming from the shadows. I stopped in my tracks thinking that it was a dog, but soon realized that it was actually someone snoring. I moved up closer and saw that it was Tío Toca, my neighbor, passed out on his way back home apparently.

Once back home, I sat with my neighbors in their kitchen with a dirt floor and thatched roof to wait for the New Year to arrive in the candlelight. They shared with me a bit of boiled yuca, pork, rosca bread, and hot chocolate -- a much humbler feast than what I had enjoyed the week before with my latino family, but a feast nonetheless.

My neighbors in the Comarca.
My neighbors in the Comarca.

Then, came one of my favorite Panamanian traditions: burning the muñeco, a dummy made from old clothes that is supposed to represent the old year. A week or two prior to New Year´s Eve, you begin to see these dummies sitting on people´s porches like scarecrows, waiting for the new year to come. They are often stuffed with fireworks as well, for an extra bang as it were. Then, when midnight rolls around, the dummy is burned, symbolizing the death of the old year and taking with it all the problems that we have faced. Not only does it have special meaning -- with a dummy full of firecrackers that explodes for a good 20 minutes, it´s a lot of fun too. In fact, for my second new year in Panama I made a dummy as well, though I didn´t fill it with fireworks, and I have made them almost every year since then.

The first muñeco de Año Viejo that I made.
he first muñeco de Año Viejo that I made.

Christmas and New Years in Panama may not feature a lot of what we normally associate with Christmas; there is no snow (just as hot as any other time of the year), and the food and social activities are different. Even many of the Christmas songs were not that familiar to me at the time (Campanas de Belén? Never heard of it). There may be Santa Claus and gift giving, but they are not the focus of the season and commercialism is not quite so rampant as it is in the U.S. While there are echoes of US culture that sound here and there (I didn´t expect eggnog and fruitcake in Panama, but why not?), nothing is quite the same as home. At the time, I wondered if I would ever feel a special nostalgia for pink potato salad and tamales at Christmas the same way that I feel for pumpkin pie and gingerbread, but now I can honestly say that I do. They represent a part of my life that was new and exciting, and full of love for my Panamanian friends.

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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