It was our first Christmas Eve in Boquete. Midnight. Suddenly-- boom, bang, boom.
I was raised on the south side of Chicago and so immediately thought of gunfire. Which distressed me because even in Chicago the gangs try to lay off of killing each other on Christmas Eve.
But it was firecrackers. That's right, the Panamanians traditionally celebrate Christmas Eve by setting off a bunch firecrackers. What better way to express joy over the birth of baby Jesus?
Another tradition on Christmas Eve is to sit down with family and have a large meal at midnight. “Well, it is more like a feast,” a Panamanian told me. "In my family, it includes rice with guandu beans, tamales, meat and poultry, bread, salad, rum punch and a basketful of fruit, usually grapes, apples and pears. At midnight, everyone in the family gets twelve grapes. We try not to eat the seeds of the grapes. Then we go around the table and each person counts their seeds. Anyone who has twelve seeds makes a wish and it is suppose to come true.”
Christmas candles are a big part of many Panamanian's Christmas. These candles tend to be symbolic. Four candles: purple, pink, white and red, are set in a crown of pine needles and twigs. On the first Sunday of December, one of the candles is lit, and a special prayer is said. After the prayer, the candle is blown out. The second Sunday, two candles are lit, a different prayer is said, and the candles are blown out. And so on until Christmas Eve when the last candle is lit. Peace, health, family and love are prayed for.
Although nativity scenes, or pesebres, are common in many North American homes, the Panamanians make it an art form. Truly. Many Boqueteños go into the mountains and look under rocks or on the trees to gather moss. The moss is used in the nativity scene as greenery, decorating the bottom of a box which serves as the floor to a stable. The nativity scene can be big or little, with ceramic or wood figures, inside the home or outside in the garden. And it almost always has a star. Some families cover the face of baby Jesus with a cotton cloth, and at midnight, they uncover Jesus and light a candle.
And of course, Panamanian children, like children everywhere, stay up and wait for Santa Claus.
If you're North American, and part of your old tradition was to drink egg nog while watching the snow cover the ground on Christmas Eve, it is a good bet that you are not going to have a white Christmas here in Panama. So, adopt a new tradition. Light a candle and pray for peace. We need all the prayers we can get.
(this blog was originally published in the Bajareque Times Newspaper in a different form many years ago.)