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Panama Holiday Cheer

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 01 January 2010 08:24
Panama holidaysMy family always made it a habit to recognize the first Christmas song played on the radio for the pending holiday season. This usually happened in the car while flipping through the stations on our way to school and we used the song, click not unlike the first droplets of rain or the first shots fired, troche as a warning of the riotous storm that what was to come. Eventually lights would be strung, fake snow would line store display windows, and the giant tree in our town square would come alive, but in truth nothing gave the indicator that Christmas was around the corner quite like that first on-air song. I’ve always enjoyed how different cultures celebrate the holidays. When she lived in Germany, my friend Kara had a neighbor who dressed his pet cockatoo up in a little red coat designed to resemble Santa Clause. “He flies around the park clumsily, because of the bulk of the fabric, you know?” she told me, and I stopped her here because I’ve always wondered about this bird business. You don’t see pet birds out in public often, but when you do, they’re wildly, almost catatonically well behaved. “In the park? You mean he doesn’t fly away?”

“No, he’s trained,” Kara said. “He just stands there on your shoulder like a good little birdie. Sometimes he’ll fly away for a second but he always comes back. If you have enough time, really, you can train anything.” I tended to disagree fundamentally but was lost fantasizing the image of a beaked Santa mid-flight. I smiled and said I concurred.

The Christmas season in Panama is nothing too different from its other holidays and part of the rouse is that the weather doesn’t really change. There is a peculiar sense of backwardness in celebrating Christmas on a sunny Panama beach (which is where many people choose to spend Christmas and New Years). It’s like associating a banana with the color yellow. Hand someone who’s eaten yellow bananas all his life, say, a silver or turquoise banana and he’s likely not to take the bait.

But part of what comforts foreigners in Panama around the holidays – part of what makes them feel at home – are the decorations which are laid about the country, most so in the capital, as if it were an extremely wealthy trailer park. The fundamental concepts are consistent, but the scale of interpretation is from another planet. Take the nativity scene I saw on Via Espana. Here was a manger and a baby Jesus just to be overshadowed by the presence of a giant unicorn holding a sword in his talon. It was as if the original sculpture order placed back in October was somehow corrupted. But I accept the nativity scene with the assumption that somewhere on display – maybe a mall or a convention center – is a fantasy exhibit featuring the Virgin Mary and her seven wise shepherds.

“Seven wise shepherds?” my Panamanian friend Annie asked when I told her this story. “What are they like the seven little dwarfs?” Part of my ambivalence towards Panama’s decorations is the fact that I’m Jewish and probably wouldn’t know a shepherd from a dwarf. The Jewish religion, at least the one I subscribe to, doesn’t have many mascots. We have a menorah and we have its sidekick the dreidel. Two inanimate objects.
After his proposal to spend nearly as much on gifts of baby pools for all children, Panama City’s mayor Bosco Vallerino, in something of a scandal this holiday season, spent close to $1 Million dollars on fiberglass and metal sculptures to line the newly-minted Cinta Costera. This, while insulting to Panama’s poverty line, was made even worse by the fact that decorations were downright bizarre. There was a small war-field of two-dimensional gingerbread men flanked alongside a fleet of dashing seahorses. I thought I had identified a nautical theme until I realized those were not mermaids but princesses holding soccer balls and candy cane staffs. Some American friends called the display “delightfully tacky,” while others called it “sorta cute.” I, on the other hand, could just as easily have been convinced that these are the metaphors, in Panama, which ring in the New Year.

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Court , January 14, 2010
Spot on post! I have to say, my first holiday season in Panama and the most memorable part was the first time I drove through the Cinta Costera. To say the setup was bizarre would be a massive understatement! The war-field gingerbread men was by far the best part though!
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Last Updated on Friday, 01 January 2010 08:26