We Share Our Cultures at Christmas Time

From the Panama Canal Review, December 7, 1962

At no season does the cosmopolitan heritage of the Crossroads of the Americas stand forth more convincingly than at Christmas, when almost every Isthmian home invites the blessings of the season with both a Panamanian nacimiento and a temperate-latitude Christmas tree -- often a balsam or spruce from the northern part of the United States or Canada.

With a fine disregard for purists, the peoples of the Isthmus have for generations been enthusiastically engaged in trading customs and folkways each December along with a "felices Pascuas" and a "Merry Christmas."

Traditionally in Panama, December 25 is the feast day of El Niņo Dios. And it is not Santa Claus but the Christ Child who visits homes of good children as they lie asleep, leaving toys or other gifts at the bedside. This custom is unaffected by the years of association, just as the filling of Christmas stockings by Santa Claus still holds for the young children of North American or European parentage.

But the building and dressing of the nacimiento to represent not merely the Holy Family and a manger, but often the town and townsfolk of Bethlehem and its surrounding villages, is a custom adopted readily by gringos and other newcomers. Many families form a permanent collection of Biblical personages, angels, and farm animals that are treasured from year to year.

Nor does a Panamanian child see anything strange in going to market to help select a spicy smelling evergreen tree and then decking it out with artificial icicles, snow, colored balls, tinsels, and lights.

Santa Claus himself is though of by the smaller fry in his usual guise of a jolly red-clad St. Nick with a white beard. But they expect him to step out of an airplane or a helicopter -- as he often does at military posts or in the Interior -- rather than to make his flight by sleigh across the jungle treetops. Nor is much said at these Crossroads about chimneys and fireplaces, except in the few homes where an artificial red brick mantel is part of the holiday decorations. Filled stockings hang just as well on a bed frame or door.

The spirit of Christmas seems to be launched in the cities of Panama on the evening of December 7 -- the night before the religious feast of the Immaculate Conception. Special household shrines of the Virgin are arranged on balconies and in windows. Images consisting of either paintings or statuary are displayed in a frame of flowers set off with brilliants and illuminated by candles or special lights. The day following is marked in Panama as Mothers' Day and is a national holiday.

Christmas trees are dressed, stockings hung, and nacimientos first lighted on Christmas Eve, which for many residents of both jurisdictions is the occasion of a midnight church service. In Panama, after this Misa de Gallo, or cock's mass, a feast is served for the adults. It may be a light supper or a full meal, but always includes tamales and often continues until dawn.

An observance practiced only in Panama coincides with El Dia de los Inocentes (the day on which King Herod decreed the slaying of male infants). Oddly perhaps, down the centuries December 28 has become to be the annual day for playing pranks and tricks. It corresponds to April Fools' Day in many lands, and here serves to sound the note for the noisy midnight welcome of the New Year 3 days later.

The Day of the Three Kings -- Twelfth Night -- is not overlooked. Children receive fruits, nuts, and little gifts. In some nacimientos, the figures of the Kings of the East are placed far on the outskirts of the scene on Christmas Eve. Each day the householder moves them a little closer to the manger until on January 6 they arrive before the Christ Child.

After Twelfth Night, most nacimientos and Christmas trees are dismantled. But by then the dried out balsam or spruce has almost surely been promised to some neighborhood child for one final rite -- the community burning.

The Review could not learn how these January bonfires started in Panama, but the practice seems to have come directly from the northern countries of Europe. It is known in the United States only in recent years. Legend has it that the origin dates back to the pre-Christian era when, during the dark afternoons following the winter solstice. The ancient Huns lighted bonfires as a hopeful portent of spring.

Whatever their origin, Isthmians like the burnings, where youngsters dart about and parents keep a watchful eye. Food is often served, something like wieners or snacks -- but never the fruitcake and eggnog of the holidays to which the bonfire puts an honest-to-goodness end.

December 5, 1999

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