Here in Panama, especially in the Azuero, Christmas is treated more as a holy day than as a visit from Santa. Remembrance of “the reason for the season” is emphasized, and it is a family day. Families gather, close friends visit. Where there are small children gifts change hands on Christmas morning. Where the children are grown, gift exchange is less frequent.
Christmas Eve is possibly a more important day in Panama than Christmas Day. The main feast is held Christmas Eve, at 10pm or so and a feast it is. Ham, turkey, special seasonal tamales, various types of Panamanian potato salad and/or vegetable salads will grace the table. There will probably be a special rice dish – arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), arroz verde (green rice), arroz guandú (rice with a certain type of bean) or arroz con tocino (rice with bacon). Fruits – apples, grapes, pears – will be offered in plenty, as will dried fruits and nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashews, and mixed nuts. The nuts are often whole and require cracking, which is part of the Christmas fun.
There will be various types of wine and beer. Ron ponche is required – it is specially served at Christmas and New Year. There may also be liquors of other types, such as whiskey. Some Panamanians celebrate with a drink called chichi de saril.
Dulce frio (frozen sweets), rosca de pan de huevo (an egg bread made like a crown) and queque de frutas (fruitcake) are traditional sweets.
Fruitcake is, in fact, the most popular Panamanian Christmas dessert. It is dark, moist, and delicious, loaded with small candied fruits which are sometimes soaked in Port Wine before baking. A light egg bread made with these candied fruits is also very popular in the season. The dark fruitcake is often available in groceries right before Christmas, if you want to try it. Or you could order some from Vanessa de Cano, our local resource.
At midnight the family will go to mass, and in the morning the children will open their gifts. The day is spent quietly enjoying leftovers and more ron ponche while visiting with family and friends.