It seems like every time I touch base with my Panamanian architect, he and his wife are celebrating a holiday…😄…and my excitement about living in Panamá mounts.
Of course, this is partly because my future home + nature and book retreat feels a little more real, but also because I’m starving for culture.
Although San Diego is wonderful in many ways, it falls very short in the culture departments.
I’m also a sucker for tradition, probably because I haven’t had much of it in my life.
My Polish grandparents didn’t pass down anything, apparently in an attempt to become American through and through.
Holidays tell the story of a culture. And, Panama has quite a story to tell…
Catholicism and independence are the two primary themes of Panama holidays. The culture is steeped in tradition and abundant on pride—and Panamanians have mastered the art of having a good time.
I am impatiently waiting to experience every one of these holidays in person in Panama beginning in 2021. Of course, I’ll be sharing our experiences and my photos here!
Until then, I have this:
A year of Panama holidays begins with New Year’s Eve…
If you’re in Panama City, you’ll want to check out one of the best fireworks shows in Central America—beginning at midnight and lasting until early the next morning.
You’ll also see strange (sometimes unsettling) life-sized effigies everywhere. Known as “muñecos de año viejo” (old year dolls), they are the creator’s representation of something good or bad about the past year—it may be an admired celebrity or a political or cultural figure that everyone is happy to to leave behind in the old year. Come midnight, they are burned to symbolize the fresh start the new year brings.
This is just one of many superstitions that comes out on New Year’s Eve—click here to read about more!
Día De Los Reyes Mago (Three Kings Day) ends the first holiday season of the year.
The night before, children leave out their shoes (or shoeboxes) to be filled with little gifts by the three wise men, and “rosca de reyes” (king cake) is a traditional dessert that is eaten in honor of this day.
A minor holiday overall, it is most celebrated in the town of Macaracas in the Los Santos province. At the center of the town’s celebration is a play that reenacts the visit of the trio to the manger, an ox-drawn cart parade, folkloric shows, and often the construction of building of a mud house for a family in need.
Día de los Mártires (Martyrs’ Day) is the anniversary of the Panama Canal Zone riot that occurred on January 9, 1964.
After the U.S. helped Panama achieve its independence from Colombia in 1903, they established the “Canal Zone,” an area entirely under their control that included the Canal. (I highly recommend reading The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough for the (long) story of the construction of the Panama Canal.)
Just before his assassination in 1964, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had agreed to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the U.S. flag on all non-military locations inside the Canal Zone. After his death, his successors ordered that all flags be removed, however a group of Zonians hoisted the U.S. flag anyways.
When a small group of Panamanian students attempted to fly the Panama flag beside it, a scuffle ensued, the Panamanian flag was torn and the situation became violent. In the end, four Americans and 21 Panamanian students were dead.
The events of this day are considered to be the start of the very long process of the return of the Canal to Panamá.
This memorial holiday begins with a march retracing the students’ steps and ends with speeches, many by survivors of the fateful day.
Carnival (Carnaval) in Panama is another multi-day celebration, beginning on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and also including Shrove Monday, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).
Don’t expect any business to get done during this time—businesses and schools are shut down while pretty much the entire country parties.
A blend of African, European and Central American customs and traditions originating in colonial times, this popular event is the last chance to indulge in revelry before the fasting of Lent begins, as well as an opportunity to both honor and mock the foreign culture that came with Spanish domination.
It became an official holiday in 1910.
Today, elaborate parades, floats, queens, bands, loud music, dancing, elaborate costumes, and “la mojadera” (water spraying) are all a part of this vibrant celebration. You’ll also see many a demon scaring evil spirits away—they are mischievous so take care!
At the heart of Carnival is the “feud.” This “battle” is rooted in colonial days when two neighborhoods—Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo—had a fierce rivalry. It’s no less intense today and even more extravagant with the winner having the honor of their queen reigning for the next year.
The celebration ends with the “Entierro de la Sardina” (Burial of the Sardine). Yes, a sardine. In a tiny coffin.
And, then begins the 40 days of Lent.
Las Tablas is THE place to go to experience Carnavale. It’s also especially vibrant in Chitre, Penonome, Pedasi, Los Santos, Dolega, David, Capira, Aguadulce, San Miguelito, and Panama City.
Holy Week is a somber Catholic group of holidays centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It includes the following observances:
- Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter)—commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
- Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter)—commemorates Jesus’ offering of the Eucharist at the Last Supper
- Good Friday (the Friday before Easter)—commemorates Jesus’ Passion, crucifixion, and death
- Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter)—commemorates the day that Christ lay in his tomb after death
- Easter Sunday—commemorates the resurrection of Jesus
Each region has its own traditional customs and activities, including church services, reenactments (typically Way of the Cross and Passion of Chris performances), and processions.
It is a week of contemplation, fasting and praying. No alcohol can be purchased at restaurants or stores on this day.
Día de los Trabajadores (Labor Day), also called May Day, is a day off for the most as businesses and schools are closed.
The holiday is a celebration of workers, and the successful fight for their rights, and the beginning of spring.
Similar to other countries, Father’s Day is on the third Sunday in June and is celebrated by honoring one’s father (or father figure).
Foundation of Old Panama City is a public holiday established in 2015 that celebrates both the founding of Panama Vieja and the opening of the Panama Canal.
Most people have off as most businesses and schools are closed.
The “Festival of the Black Christ” is an annual Catholic pilgrimage that takes place in Portobelo.
This is an especially important holiday for those of African descent as it also a protest against Spanish colonialism, slavery and racism.
At the center of the festival is a life-sized wooden statue of a dark-skinned Jesus ,known as “Cristo Negro” and “El Nazaraeno” and of unknown origin, that is purported to have arrived in Portobelo in the 1600s when the majority of the city’s population was from Africa.
Some of the pilgrims come dressed in purple robes, as a symbol of their suffering, to seek forgiveness for their sins. After a traditional procession through the streets of Portobelo comes music, drinking and dancing.
Separation Day is one of two national celebrations of Panama’s sovereignty as a country, and the first of five national holidays in November collectively known as “Fiestas Patrias.”
After declaring independence from Spain in 1821, Panama joined the Republic of Greater Colombia along with Venezuela, Ecuador, northern Peru, western Guyana and northwestern Brazil in order to maintain their freedom.
This lasted until 1903, at which point the two countries disagreed on whether the U.S. should be allowed to build a canal across Panama. Ultimately, the U.S. stepped in and helped Panama separate from Colombia.
Celebrations are held throughout Panama and include fireworks and parades with the largest being in Panama City.
Flag Day, which is held annually on November 4, connects Separation Day and Colon Day and honors the creation of the Panamanian flag by María de la Ossa de Amador in 1903.
The flag of Panama is divided into four quarters. In the upper left and lower right white quarters are a five-point blue star and five-point red star, respectively, and the upper right quarter is red and the lower left quarter is blue.
The colored quarters and stars symbolize the two rival political parties—blue for Conservatives and red for Liberals. The white behind the stars represents the peace under which they run the country.
The day is celebrated by flag raising ceremonies, individuals proudly flying the flag and, of course, more festivals.
Held on November 5 every year, just after Separation Day and Flag Day, Colon Day commemorates the official end to Panama’s Colombian era.
Though Panama had declared independence from Colombia just a couple of days prior, a battalion of Colombian soldiers still in Colon was planning a march on the city. As a result of the offensive actions taken by locals, they were not successful.
This national holiday, held annually on November 10, commemorates the start of the battle for independence from Spain.
Panama’s fiercest fight for independence began in Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula when locals here openly declared their separation from the Spanish Empire.
Independence Day is the fifth holiday in the month of November and celebrates Panama’s official independence from Spain on November 28, 1821.
In 1519, Panama City became the first European settlement as part of the Spanish Empire. From 1538 through 1821, Panama was governed by Spain through the Viceroy of Peru.
Immediately after, Panama joined the Republic of Colombia, also known as Gran Colombia, in order to maintain their independence from Spain.
December 8 is a national holiday to honor mothers in Panama that also falls on the same day as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Other than it being a national public holiday, and typically beginning with a family trip to church, it is celebrated much the same as in other countries with attention and gifts lavished upon mothers.
The Christmas holiday celebration kicks off in Panama City with a huge parade with bands, floats, live performers, and lots of food.
Nine days before Christmas, some neighborhoods hold the Spanish Las Posada where families build a shelter out of palm fronds on their property and two of the community’s children dressed up as Mary and Joseph. Every night until Christmas Eve they recreate their search for a room at an inn and end with singing, piñatas and traditional Panamanian food.
Christmas Eve is the highlight of the season celebrated with fireworks, dancing in the streets, visits to relatives. Typical meals are chicken tamales and arroz con pollo, turkey with relleno stuffing, fruit and fruitcake, and Ron Ponche (spiked eggnog).
Christmas Day is traditionally spent at church in the morning and with family and friends the rest of the day.
NOTE: If a roving holiday falls on a weekend, the Monday following will be observed as a public holiday.
I hope these stories of Panama holidays has you as excited as I am. If you’ve already had some amazing experiences, please share a tidbit (or two or three) in a comment below!
The one that’s missing from the list…
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention December 20…
Although it’s not officially recognized, this day is unofficially recognized by many Panamanians. On December 20, 1989, the U.S. unleashed Operation Just Cause on Panama City, bombing the El Chorrillo neighborhood in an attempt to overthrow Manuel Noriega.
As you walk around Casco Viejo and El Chorrillo today, you will find graffiti with this date—reminding people to never forget what happened to their fellow citizens and their neighborhood.