Christmas in Panama
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
A Brief History
The Cueva and Coclé tribes are the earliest known inhabitants of Panama. Their population was greatly decreased by disease and war upon the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore Panama. Vasco Núñez de Balboa followed 10 years later, establishing a settlement in the Darién province. Balboa proved that the isthmus of Panama was a path between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Thus, gold and silver was brought from South America to the Pacific side of Panama and hauled across land to the Atlantic where it was placed on ships headed to Spain. This route became known as the Camino Real or Royal Road. Panama was under Spanish rule from 1538 to 1821--almost 300 years. There are currently three indigenous tribes in Panama, the Cuna, Ngäbe and Chocó. The Cuna are the largest group by far and live on reservations set aside by the government. The origin of the name Panama is thought to be the name given to one of the coastal towns by the indigenous people and means ‘plenty of fish,' conversely, others maintain that it is an indigenous word for 'many butterflies.'
As with every country that the Europeans invaded, they mistreated the native population. Bartolomé de las Casas, the first priest ordained in the West Indies, tried to stop the persecution of the natives. One of the ways he worked to abolish indigenous slavery was to get the King to import African slaves instead. It started with the importation of 4000 African slaves to the Antilles. The slave trade would flourish for more than 200 years, with Panama as a major distribution point. Many slaves escaped into the jungle and became known as cimarrones, who attacked travelers along the Camino Real. Gran Colombia, a confederation of states-- Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama and Colombia-- gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The confederation fell apart, five years later, but Panama and Columbia remained a single nation. Panama declared its independence from Columbia in 1903. However, Columbia did not recognize Panama as a legitimate nation until 1921, when the US paid them $25 million in ‘compensation.’ In 1881, the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps began work on the Panama Canal. By 1889, he gave up, as the engineering and health challenges the company faced were so overwhelming, it ended in bankruptcy. President Theodore Roosevelt convinced the US Congress to take over the abandoned project in 1902. It took the Army Corps of Engineers ten years--from 1904 to 1914—to complete the canal. It is considered one of the world’s great engineering feats. Although it is certain that the Canal Company’s apartheid practices were unwarranted and unjust, some good did come from the construction of the canal for Panama. It provided a financial boost to the country’s economy and its workforce. The engineers developed infrastructure to treat potable water, sewage and garbage that benefited not only the Canal Zone, but the cities of Panama and Colon. The standards for urban development that were implemented helped rid the area of yellow fever. Ultimately, the canal was turned over to the Panamanian government on December 31, 1999 in accordance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.
As in all Latin American countries, Panama is a predominantly Christian nation due to Spanish imperialism and centuries of Catholic missions work. As such, Christmas is an official holiday celebrated enthusiastically across the country.There is a Christmas parade in Panama City, and many people wear the national costume. The ladies wear an intricately designed dress called a Pollera, while the men wear a Montuno.
For less formal occasions, women wear a Montuna Ocueña, which is composed of a white laced blouse, and a three-layered skirt. Montuna Ocueña is also accompanied by other accessories such as white hat decorated with natural flowers, earrings, beaded necklaces, a shawl and/or a chacara (a bag made of natural woven fibers originating from the Ngäbe). Men will wear a Montuna Ocueño, which is composed of a shirt (Cotonoa) and knee-length pant (Chingo). Montuno is well known for its colorful and beautiful embroidery, which is found in part of the neck, shoulders, front, cuffs, and around the lower edge of the shirt. The design of embroidery looks like geometric forms of flower and animals. Chingo is also adorned with similar embroidery. Other accessories may include a white straw hat, sandals, and long knife wrapped in a leather case (Machete).
Festivities are similar to other Latin American countries, with fireworks on Christmas right at midnight; although, some people begin shooting off fireworks earlier in the week. There is dancing in the streets, drinking and eating.
The traditional meal consists of chicken tamales (a cornmeal made into a paste with arturo sauce, meats, capers, prunes, and spices wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled), pavo (turkey), arroz con guandu, and relleno (stuffing). Although fruit cake is no longer a tradition in the US, it is still a regular part of a Panamanian Christmas. Ron Ponche, which is a spiked eggnog is also a traditional part of the meal.
For Catholics, the biggest feast is on December 24th- Nochebuena. This meal will be very similar to the traditional North American Christmas meal, consisting of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and fruitcake. On Christmas Day, most people will go to worship services in the morning and some families open gifts on this day. As with many Catholic majority countries, Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (Kings Day) is also observed. Epiphany is observed on January 6th; this is the day when children receive presents. It is also the day that the Rosca de Reyes is eaten.
Over 90% of Panamanians claim Christianity as their faith. Despite the Christian majority, Panama is plagued with issues of divorce, domestic violence, immorality, and drug use. Pray for professing Christians to exemplify righteous living at home and in the marketplace.
There are a number of agencies working to mobilize the Church into world missions. The network PAAM (“Panamanians Reaching the World”) is at the vital core of the movement and brings together dozens of ministries and denominations. The main obstacles to greater mission sending are lack of unity, lack of vision and lack of training. Pray for missions organizations which prepare and send Panamanians around the world to serve as missionaries.