Easter actually lasts for more than a week in Panama. It lasts just over 40 days and is a roller coaster of emotions. Here is what they do. You can watch from afar or get involved; either way, you’re going to experience something new… something unique to this amazing Central American country.
Miércoles De Ceniza
Things kick off on a high with carnaval (carnival). Carnaval in Panama involves lots of water being sprayed through giant hosepipes called culecos. Culecos shower revelers who are dancing in the streets and drinking and eating. It takes place on Shrove Tuesday and the preceding weekend.
Being a catholic country, Panama follows Christian traditions. Culecos are used to cleanse before Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday) and as a way to enjoy final merriment before entering a period that is solemn and completive of Jesus’ sacrifices for mankind.
The best places to enjoy carnaval are in the countryside, in the center of the country (el interior as it’s fondly known by Panamanians). The capital city has street parties, but Las Tablas in el interior and other small towns are where the real action happens. Street parties start at the weekend and don’t die off until early hours Wednesday morning.
Each town’s Calle Arriba (upper street) and Calle Abajo (lower street) battle for carnaval supremacy. Uptown and downtown coexist peacefully throughout the rest of the year, but come carnaval, they are rivals.
The two sections of town appoint queens well in advance (usually years ahead of time), and for the event, the queens sit atop their parade floats, dressed in their best feather-laden costumes and handmade polleras (traditional Panamanian skirts).
Queens and extravagant costumes are typical for any Latino carnival, but Panama’s uniqueness is the culecos. And believe me, they are welcomed after hours of dancing in the heat. Make sure you wear sunblock and a hat to keep you protected.
Carnaval partying goes on all day and all night, so stamina and comfort are key. Expect streets to be jam-packed and hotels booked at least a year in advance (“book early to avoid disappointment” has a whole new meaning when it comes to this festivity).
Although you can camp, I don’t recommend it because you get sticky and dirty after dancing for days on end, and the things you look forward to most are a hot shower and a comfy bed.
After carnaval finishes, churches hold masses on different days in the run up to Domingo de Pascua or Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday). Each Mass has a particular name. On Miércoles de Ceniza and every Wednesday during the Easter buildup, strict Catholics don’t eat meat.
|Semana Santa Semantics
If you are celebrating Semana Santa in Panama or simply curious to learn more about local customs, the following is a list of essential Easter vocabulary.
Holy week = La Semana Santa
There are 40 days between Miércoles de Ceniza and Viernes Santo (Good Friday). Some Panamanians participate in el Vía Crucisduring these 40 days. This is when the roller coaster goes down and things start to sober up.
Although not as wretched as in some Latin American countries, people make short pilgrimages to go to mass in nearby villages that they wouldn’t normally walk to.
After certain masses, el vicario (the vicar) hands out palm crosses to the congregation. People collect the crosses and hang them in their houses. There are 12 in total.
Continuing on a solemn note, it is also common for Panamanians to do rosarios in each other’s houses. Rosarios are praying sessions where a certain number of prayers are recited. To keep track of how many you have said, beads on a ribbon are counted and flicked through fingers.
Additionally, cuaresma (lent) is observed by some Panamanians and, as in most Christian traditions, something that is very much enjoyed is given up for a month.
Being heavily catholic, Panama is less commercial in its Easter traditions. Another reason why it shies away from chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits is the weather.
In pre-Christian Europe, spring was celebrated because it offered new life every year. The Romans combined typically pagan new-life celebrations with Christianity. Today, Easter eggs are eaten on the day of Christ’s resurrection (Easter Sunday) to represent new life.
Panama has never been pagan. As a tropical country, it doesn’t have seasons and therefore, no spring. In comparison to the United States or Canada, Easter remains firmly religious here. A few posh shops may have chocolate eggs and some luxurious hotels capitalize on the long weekend and offer egg hunts, but for many the focus is church and the Easter story.
Domingo De Ramos And Jueves Santo
El Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) is the Sunday before Viernes Santo. Many Panamanians go to church on this special day.
On Jueves Santo (the day before Viernes Santo—Good Friday), the public sector is off and the private sector often work half days. Churches are bursting at the seams. Re-enactments of the Easter story are held in churches across the country all through the evening and into the night.
Children don’t often attend as the story of Christ’s death and resurrection are hard for them to comprehend (unlike the Nativity, for example). However, it is definitely worth visiting mass and seeing the story re-enacted rather than merely reading about it.
Viernes Santo is a sober affair, an austere day when everything is shut. Some hotels and resorts are open, but apart from that, businesses are closed. Strict Panamanians spend a lot of time in church, at home doing rosarios, and contemplating life.
If you are a tourist in Panama, there isn’t too much to do apart from going to a very somber mass.
Domingo De Pascua
Domingo de Pascua (Easter Sunday) is when things pick up again. Everybody is joyous. After mass in the morning, Panamanians spend time with their families, eating and celebrating. Meat can be eaten again and life goes back to normal. The roller coaster starts racing once more and life returns to its usual, gleeful Latino way.
Whether you watch from afar or practice some spirituality, Semana Santa is a very special time of the year in Panama.