What better place to spend the holidays than Panama?
As the sun shines overhead, the waves lap at your toes, and Santa Claus sits in a palm tree, you’ll be happy you traded in the snow shoveling and winter parkas. Christmas traditions live just as happily in the warm weather and the beaches of Panama…
Christmas trees are lined up in front of stores while vendors eagerly await customers. Christmas songs float down the streets following the lines of twinkling lights.
Children are thinking of Santa Claus. Neighbors are decorating houses, some with sophisticated white lights and others with large inflatable decorations throughout their yard. The Christmas parade winds through town.
This is Christmas worldwide.
Every country has a slightly different spin on the holiday season, and Panama is no exception. The biggest difference for newcomers is probably the food.
Whether you’re visiting friends or family, or just vacationing in Panama for the holidays, here’s what to expect for Christmas Eve dinner…
Cena Navideña (Christmas Dinner)
Frijol de palo or guandú
No holiday season can go by without this Panamanian favorite. Frijol de palo andguandú are the same thing—the first term is common in Chiriquí Province and the second is used throughout the rest of Panama.
Known as pigeon peas in English, they’re perennial legumes grown in the highlands of Panama. You’ll see them growing in backyards, along the street, and on farms.
The frijoles are boiled until they turn the water deep purple. The water is then used to cook the rice that the frijoles will be served over. Using the reserved water turns the rice a festive purple, and no proper meal in Panama is served without rice.
Chicken and beef are staples of the Panamanian diet, but once Christmas rolls around, the basics are set aside. It’s time to pull out all the stops.
Christmas is one of the few times of year when you can find turkey in even the most basic of grocery stores. It’s also a popular time for glazed hams. You’ll find that most Panamanians slice and fry or smoke glazed hams. Ovens aren’t commonly used in Panama.
Pork is popular year-round, but it’s outside many peoples’ budgets, making it a Christmas delight. It’s often served with frijoles de palo and rice.
Tamales de puerco
Panamanian tamales take a lot of time and effort to make. It’s usually an all-day affair involving the entire family, making them an extra special addition to the Christmas meal. Traditionally pork is used at Christmas, unlike the chicken tamales eaten throughout the rest of the year.
Ensalada de papas y remolacha
Everyone needs a salad with dinner. Panamanians add beets to the basic potato salad recipe. The beets, diced just like the potatoes, add a holiday pink to the dinner plate.
While imported fruits are found on every grocery store aisle in the United States and Canada, these products are a luxury in Panama—and can be expensive.
As the holidays are a time for extravagance, grapes and red and green apples are popular treats. You’ll see vendors hawking these imported fruits in town centers around the country early December through New Year’s.
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All varieties of wine find their way onto the dinner table at Christmas. Unlike in France, wine isn’t a popular mealtime indulgence and is usually only served for special occasions.
Some families don’t drink alcohol for religious or health reasons, making non-alcoholic sparkling wine a popular drink at Christmas and a safe present for any friend or neighbor. Sparkling wine is hard to come by the rest of the year, so if you are partial to it, stock up at Christmas.
The Panamanian answer to egg nog, this rum punch is sure to put you in the holiday spirit. There are various recipes for ron ponche, and the difference between it and egg nog is the use of local rum and milk products instead of eggs.
Dulce de frutas
Fruitcake—there seems to be no avoiding it no matter what country you celebrate Christmas in.
Dulce de papaya madura
Papaya is always in season in Panama. Though frequently used in batidos(milkshakes), during the holidays it’s mixed with sugar and cinnamon to make a candy-like treat. Other fruit such as pineapple can be used, but papaya is most common.
Known locally as pan bon but officially called “bon,” this is a sweet dark bread or cookie made with ginger. It hails from the Caribbean coast of Latin American countries such as Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Colombia. The dark color comes from cane sugar molasses. This is also a popular treat duringSemana Santa (Holy Week).
Rosca de pan de Navidad
A sweet egg bread adorned with small, candied fruit and almonds. Though popular for almost any holiday or special event, you won’t find a street corner in Panama without roscavendors right before Christmas and New Year’s. It’s tradition that families set out a rosca on Christmas Eve to indulge in after dinner.Roscais also a popular gift as it’s assumed that everyone needs one.
Christmas Eve and the days leading up to the holidays involve many hours in the kitchen and a lot of work… then the party begins.
Be prepared for the long haul. After dinner, presents are exchanged and the party continues long into the night. Family members visit one another, neighbors perform toasts, and then come the fireworks. No holiday is celebrated without fireworks in Panama!
Christmas morning the crowds will storm the beaches. After a long night you might expect a slow, leisurely day of sun bathing. That is not the Panamanian way. The party goes on and the crowds quickly become a raucous bunch. If you live near or are visiting any beach area in Panama be prepared for a long, noisy day. Don’t despair, you’ll have the following week to recuperate before the next round of parties on New Year’s Eve.
Christmas in Panama is worth trading in the snow and parkas, and is something you’ll always remember. Bring a healthy appetite, a swim suit, and your holiday spirit!
¡Felices fiestas! Happy holidays!