Amid the cheerful holiday trappings of Christmas are the aromas wafting from our kitchen as Florence bakes traditional holiday breads as gifts for our wonderful friends – cranberry orange bread, carrot bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, and her classic banana bread with chocolate chips. I have performed my solemnly sworn duty of quality control, making sure each variety of sweet bread is good enough to share with others. I am pleased to report that all varieties passed with flying colors again this season.
Decorations adorn most shops and businesses. Holiday breads are sold by street vendors. The town square in Boquete has a two-story tall Christmas tree with lights and stars and bright red ribbons adorning it. A Christmas party was held for the local children last weekend, and I saw smiling faces as bright colored balloons and toys were handed out by generously supportive organizations. Miniature ponies were saddled to provide horseback rides for the youngest children.
As you would expect in a country that is 90 percent Catholic, the Christmas season is especially meaningful in Panama. Attending midnight mass is common, and gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. It is a family time, and relatives come from all around in order to spend time together.
There is a local custom I learned about related to Christmas. If you have a friend or family member who does not own their own home, you give them a gift of a manger which includes the Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. However, the manger is not complete. Once that person moves into his or her own house, custom dictates they obtain additional figurines or toy animals that help complete the manger scene.
If the manger gift recipient knows someone else who needs a house of their own, then prior to the next Christmas they pass the gift forward to the new recipient after removing all but the human figures. These gifts are passed on and on among family and friends in the form of a Christmas wish for the recipient to find a home of their own. Each time this nativity gift is given, the giver replaces it with one to keep for the holidays.
In a country where gifts are not elaborate, these nativity scenes are given to spread the joy and cheer that comes from deep religious conviction and Christian love. However you choose to celebrate Christmas, may the gifts you give and receive bring joy to you and those you love.