Celebrating Christmas or any other holiday in a foreign country can be a truly enjoyable experience. Panama offers all the joy of the holidays, without the snow, but for some people it’s hard to know what to expect. People often wonder if their traditions and celebrations will be “normal.” Fortunately, in Panama, the locals like to celebrate much in the same fashion as in the U.S. or Canada. There are few things to know and to expect in advance. Here is a description of what it is like to celebrate Christmas in Panama; plus a famous Panamanian recipe—arroz con guandú.
Panama is just as crazed as the rest of the world when it comes to holiday decorations. In early December, streets begin to light up. Small towns and big cities alike decorate main roads, businesses decorate store fronts, and houses twinkle with color. There is no law on how many lights are too many, or too few. You’ll find that almost every store sells Christmas lights, so enjoy the spirit of the holidays… just as you would back home.
Of course, the main staple of any Christmas is the tree. Large grocery stores, such as El Rey sell your traditional “live” trees which many expats are familiar with. These are nice if you can get your hands on one, but it is definitely not uncommon to purchase a plastic tree. Many Panamanians use plastic trees due to their reduced expense and the accessibility of them. They are also popular as many locals celebrate their tree outdoors on porches or balconies.
The religious aspect of Christmas is not forgotten in Panama. Many set up Nativity scenes on their property, along the street, or in public spaces. Remember, Panama is an inclusive society, but it’s predominantly Catholic.
As is always the case, when it comes to celebrations in Panama, food is one of the main ingredients. It’s also the perfect time to pull out your chef hat and apron, and get busy.
Traditional main courses for the holidays don’t differ that much from the U.S. or Canada. Giant hams, imported turkeys, pork and chicken are all part of the festivities. So take your pick, but don’t wait until the last minute or you may find yourself staring at an empty meat counter.
The government in Panama also gets in on the holiday cheer and offers discounted hams. In places such as Puerto Armuelles you will know when it’s time, as “little old ladies” line the street with portable chairs the evening before. Large families with children in tow will also descend upon the streets. All are ready to spend the night to guarantee their holiday feast includes a nice, fat ham.
In Panama, the feast is not a simple ham or turkey. The side courses are plentiful, some familiar to expats and others maybe not so much. Easily identifiable are potato, beet and green salads. Some “exotic” choices are tamales de maíz, which consist of ground corn, chicken or pork, and a special red sauce all wrapped in bijao leaves and boiled. There is also arroz con guandú, a must-have at the holidays. It’s a rice dish that’s made with guandú (pigeon peas or frijoles de palo) and is customary at Christmas as this is the time of year that guandú is ripe. You’ll find them sold by the bagful along the streets, at vendors, and even in some grocery stores (canned guandú is not acceptable). If that’s not already enough food, don’t forget your snacks. Christmas is one of the few times of the year that apples, grapes, strawberries, and walnuts are easily accessible, both at grocery stores and sold by street vendors.
Of course, don’t forget dessert. Unfortunately, fruit cake is just as popular in Panama as in the U.S. If that doesn’t excite you, maybe some of the more traditional desserts will. Look for volteado de piña or pineapple upside-down cake, or just dive into a gallon of ice cream.
With all this food to be prepared, it’s no wonder that the 24th of December is decidedly spent in the kitchen.
After all the hard work, it’s time to kick off the fiesta. Many locals will enjoy the fruits of their labor with Christmas dinner being served late on the 24th, once all the food has been completed, but before it gets cold.
After dinner, it’s time to turn on the music, pull out the dominos, and settle back for a long night. To ring in the 25th, fireworks are a mainstay, as they are for every holiday in Panama. Many families will spend as much as US$100 in fireworks, so be prepared and join in on the noise.
The late night doesn’t deter Panamanians, as the 25th is just as much a day for celebration as anywhere else. Be ready to be inundated by the masses if you live by any of the amazing beaches in Panama. Many families will head to the beach, prepared to spend all day partying and drinking ron ponche, which is eggnog made with rum, a more traditional spirit in Panama. Christmas is not the answer if you’re looking for a quiet day to stroll on the beach.
For many religious people, Christmas would not be complete without church service. Most Catholic services are held on the 24th, but many other religions hold service on the 25th. Ask your local church when they are planning holiday services in advance, or you may miss out.
Arroz Con Guandú Recipe
Frijol de palo, guandú, cajanus cajan or pigeon peas are all the same thing but the name changes depending on where in the world you are. Originally from India, guandú made its way to East Africa before heading up the Nile and ultimately finding its way to Central America. Guandú is considered one of Panama’s specialty items, and La Concepción is the heart of its production. The unique climate and soil of La Concepción’s farmlands makes the region ideal for guandú to prosper. Guandú tree grows year round, but only produces its fruit once summer hits the region. This is usually from December to February, making arroz con guandú a traditional holiday meal.
- 3 tbsps. olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, diced
- 2 pounds of guandú, dehusked and cleaned
- 3 tbsps. vegetable oil
- 2 tbsps. salt
- 1 pound of rice
- 1 large pot of water
- 1 large skillet
Putting It All Together
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add diced garlic and simmer on medium heat until the garlic is fragrant. Then add the guandú and continue to simmer, while stirring occasionally until they begin to soften. This should take about 15 minutes.
While the guandú is simmering, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the vegetable oil and salt to the water as it heats.
Once the water is boiling, add the guandú, garlic, and oil to the boiling water. Cook until the guandú is soft. Add rice to the boiling mixture and cook until the rice has absorbed all the water. The color of the rice will change as it cooks. Once the water is absorbed, turn the heat down to a simmer and cover the pot. When the rice is soft, turn off the heat. Serve immediately, or let it cool for a meal later in the day.