Spending December in Panama with its Spanish and American blend gives a chance to experience some alternative traditions to the usual North American Christmas fare. December is a busy month here, starting with Mother’s Day on December 8, this is a big event as sons and daughters travel miles to be home to celebrate. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts and godmothers are honored with presents, traditional dishes and a day off from the household chores.
Panama City holds (December 15th) a huge parade with school bands and floats, live artists and of course, all of Panamas favorite foods served along the 3km route. Many Panamanians begin decorating on the 16th and continue adding all the way to the 24th. Villages and towns transform gradually as the trees, lights and figures emerge day by day, much more intriguing than the all out at once tradition in much of the world.
Nacimientos or Nativities scenes are set up in many homes and Christmas trees are very popular–typically decorated with huge bows, flowers and lots of tinsel. Some of them have travelled from our home state, although they smelled of BC they were shedding fast in the heat—by Christmas Day they will be highly decorated skeletons.
Smaller neighborhoods hold the Spanish Las Posada on the nine days before Christmas. A successful posada needs the involvement of the whole community. Each family builds a makeshift shelter from palm fronds on their property. Two of the community’s children are dressed as Mary and Joseph and every night they mimic the search for a place in the inn. Each night they parade from house to house, where they are turned away with cries of “no room at the inn”. At the final house where they and their entourage finally enter, they sing, hit piñatas and enjoy traditional dishes. On Christmas Eve the final night, they visit all of the homes in village.
Christmas Eve is the highlight for Panamanians, instead of Christmas Carolers and ringing bells they shoot off fabulous fireworks. The huge popularity of fireworks is evident in the days up to Christmas. Anytime is a good time to celebrate here, expect to see them nightly in the run up to Christmas.
Instead of tucking the kids early into bed, while Mom & Dad have a quiet night before the onslaught of Christmas Day. Panamanians celebrate and dance in the streets. At the stroke of midnight—indicated by the sight and sound of hundreds of fireworks—they sit down to a feast of Chicken tamales, Arroz con Pollo chicken and rice, pavo turkey and relleno stuffing. Bowls of fruit and fruitcake are the traditional desserts washed down with spiked eggnog called Ron Ponche.
After dinner, there are late night visits to relatives and phone calls to those far away. Only after all this are the little ones tucked into bed and their presents placed ready for sleepy eyes on the 25th. They spend Christmas Day visiting Church in the morning, then family, friends, and eat more of the traditional foods–another day of singing eating and drinking–just like home!
Panama Ron Ponche Recipe:
2 cans of condensed milk
3 cans of evaporated milk
1/2 bottle of Rum
nutmeg to taste
Combine the milks in a large container;
beat the eggs in a separate bowl
stir them into the milk mixture,
Slowly add the rum.
Add nutmeg to taste.
Note: Refrigerate until ready to drink.