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Panama City at night | © WikiCommons
Panama City at night | © WikiCommons

How to Celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve Like a Panamanian

Picture of Brittney Schering
Updated: 14 November 2017

Holidays are especially festive when celebrated in Panama. Culture Trip has collected these exclusive tidbits for a step-by-step guide on how to eat well, drink up, and be merry so you can have your own Panama-style Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).

Eat Well

Turkey is a staple dish on the Christmas dinner table in Panama, though here it’s prepared with a twist. Locals skip the stuffing and gravy and replace those flavors with their own Latin spices. The turkey’s own jus and a combination of finely chopped and minced vegetables makes the zesty sauce they pour over the turkey after it’s been sliced.

Along with turkey, generous portions of ham are served with Panamanian staples like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and trays of tamales and potato salad. When it’s time to eat, or others are dining, people in Panama are likely to say buen provecho, which is their version of bon appetite.

Drink Up

Eggnog is kicked up a notch to what the locals know as ron ponche. This rum-spiked eggnog is a traditional Panamanian favorite. Supermarkets also stock up on the alcohol-free version, ponche de huevo, as the holidays approach for a kid-friendly alternative (the best brands are Bonlac, Borden, and Estrella). For the adult ponche, brands like Minita and Gourmet will be your go-to’s.

When it’s time to give a holiday toast, say cheers the Panamanian way with a hearty Salud!

Be Merry

With festive food and drinks aplenty, perhaps the most important ingredient of the season is the merriment of the people in Panama. All is merry and bright during the first month of celebrations in November, starting with Flag Day on November 4 and wrapping up with Independence Day on November 28. Once the month of December descends, Christmas carols blast and the country starts to deck the halls.

The spirit of Navidad is a force to be reckoned with as larger-than-life nativity scenes are created and quickly become artful roadside displays of reflection and affection. One home in the city of David, Chiriqui in western Panama features the most renowned nativity scene, called a pesebre in Panama. More than 5,000 pieces take up 130 meters of scenery, drawing crowds of curious locals and travelers for over two decades and counting.

More traditional holiday activities can be found all around Panama City, from caroling and holiday concerts to ice skating around an enormous, decorated Christmas tree inside Metromall, one of the city’s larger malls.

As Christmas wraps up and the New Year is front and center, Panamanians burn incense, prepare special baths, and clean their homes to ensure abundance and blessings in the coming year. Included in these superstitious practices are several rituals: Panamanians will hold actual money to ensure wealth in the new year, wear yellow underwear for happiness and to be rid of worries, or wheel a suitcase around the house (even if it’s empty) to bring travel and adventure. Finally, there’s the eating of 12 grapes at midnight. A wish is made with each bite, then all the seeds are counted. The total number of seeds will be that person’s lucky number in the coming year.

New Year celebrations carry on through January 6, or Three Kings’ Day, which is a traditional celebration in Panama, as well as Mexico, Spain, Peru, and Puerto Rico. On this day, children await presents from the Three Wise Men, for whom they leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts the night before.

On this same day, Panamanians burn their Christmas trees to officiate the end of the holidays. But as one reason to celebrate concludes, another is just around the corner. Next up: Carnival.