One of my fondest childhood memories is walking down the street and seeing Christmas lights twinkling over a fresh bed of snow, the crisp air and the smell of pine… and then going back home (covered in snow after making snow angels) to Christmas movies and a fresh cup of hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows floating around.
As an adult I can see how romanticized Christmas was for me growing up. No kid ever worries about black ice, the winter blues, and all the potential hazards that come with harsh winters.
Growing up as an expat, I was lucky to have more than one kind of Christmas experience at a young age. While I did spend many white Christmases in Toronto, I’ve also experienced many palm tree Christmases.
When I’m in Panama, I miss the snow and the Christmas music. When I’m in Toronto, I miss the food and the warmth of the people. That’s what happens when you learn to love more than one home.
This year, I’m spending Christmas in Panama. No snow, just sunshine and that ever-so-sweet Panamanian summer breeze. Christmas in Panama couldn’t be any different than Christmas in Canada.
How different? Well, besides the weather being the polar opposite, there’s the music.
Walk into a store for Christmas shopping in Panama City and you’ll probably hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” at some point. But there’ll be no “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”
Prepare to hear Christmas salsa music… and lots of it. Yes, there are Spanish versions of Silent Night and the more holy Christmas carols, but for the most part Christmas in Panama is one big party.
Next Up, Food
Panamanians have a whole feast as soon as the clock strikes midnight. Christmas Eve consists of cooking and getting ready. People dress up, children run around playing, and then at 12 a.m., after the fireworks, everyone sits down and eats tamales, ham and turkey, rice with Panamanian peas (arroz con guandú), potato salad, and more. There’s always food as far as the eye can see.
After Christmas dinner, if you can call a midnight meal “dinner,” kids open their gifts. And in the true Latin way, it’s pretty much a block party with loud music and kids playing until the next day. The breakfast menu is, of course, leftovers from dinner.
I remember the shocked expression I got from my Canadian classmates when I’d tell them my family didn’t wait until Christmas morning to open gifts. At the time, I didn’t realize how different my Panamanian culture was compared to the Canadian way when it came to Christmas traditions.
Over time my family adopted some of these Canadian Yuletide customs. I’d find myself reading “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” to my sisters in our PJs while my mother cooked. After eating at midnight, we’d open our presents, play, and watch Christmas movies until we passed out on the couch.
Now that we’re all grown up, we’ve developed our own traditions. We meet up at my mom’s, get dressed up, eat at midnight, make the rounds to the neighbors, and then by 2 a.m., my sisters and I are in our PJs watching The Grinch just like when we were children.
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So, After A Full Night Of Partying, What Do Panamanians Do On The 25th?
Well, the party continues!
Extended family comes over to visit. There are board games, kids swimming in inflatable pools, people taking power naps to spring right back into action, while others just party the whole way through. Christmas celebrations usually start on the 24th in the afternoon and end the following night.
If you think that’s crazy, the party picks right back up on the 31st. Christmas really is just the warm-up to New Year’s. This is when Panamanians go all out and party… hard. Tradition is pretty much the same as Christmas, however, after everyone’s eaten, people migrate to friends’ houses and keep the party going there.
Word of advice, the worst possible idea you could have is to go the beach on January 1st. You’ll find pretty much all of Panama at the beach, celebrating the New Year.
But back to the Panamanian Christmas experience. As in most metropolitan cities, Panamanians aren’t always the nicest people (in the interior of the country, it’s another story), but come Christmas time, that all changes. People will welcome you into their homes, offer you food, and treat you like part of the family. This is something I never felt during any Christmas I spent up North.
Depending on where you’re located, you’ll also see posadas which consist of children dressed up like Joseph and Mary, who sing Christmas carols as they go in search of a place to stay.
People in the interior of the country celebrate a bit differently. The food is just as good or maybe even better. Depending on which area you find yourself in, people don’t really stay up all night. It’s more of a toned-down Christmas in comparison to Panama City.
Having these experiences allowed me to understand that at the end of the day, Christmas is about who you surround yourself with and the traditions you create along the way. I’ll forever be grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to expand my world vision. This is why I think the biggest gift you can give your child, or grandchild, is the chance to be able to call more than one place home. It may take some adjusting at first, but in the long-run it’s a life-changing experience.
This year, I find myself particularly nostalgic, dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know…But then I’m reminded of the similarities between the two countries. Finding parking is a nightmare and the pressure of finding the right gift exists no matter where you go…
Luckily for me, Panama has done a great job in recent years decorating the city with lights, and now it’s even possible to go ice skating should you feel the need. There’s even a Christmas parade at the Cinta Costera for everyone to enjoy.
So while I may not get to enjoy the snow this year, I’ll be enjoying delicious Panamanian food and continuing the Christmas traditions life as a young expat allowed me to have.
Happy Holidays. Felices Fiestas.