The Tradition of “Nacimientos” in Panama

The official religion of Panama is Roman Catholic.  Panama’s population is approximately 75 to 85 percent Roman Catholic and 15–25 evangelical Christian.  Our religion, together with our language and culture, was a contribution of Spain which conquered a large chunk of South America, Central America and North America at the end of the fifteenth century.

One of the main traditions during the Christmas season in Panama, is to set up a symbolic birthplace of Jesus Christ as a baby in a manger together with his parents.  In Spanish the birthplace is called “nacimiento”, meaning birthplace or nativity scene.  You’ve guessed it, this tradition was handed over to us from Mother Spain.

Since I was a kid, we always had a “nacimiento” in our home for Christmas.  It was meticulously designed, organized and set up by my mother.  It had valleys, mountains, rivers, wells, ducks, donkeys, shepherds, camels, angels, and just about everything you can think of.  In the middle of the nacimiento was the Holy Family–infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph, the carpenter.  Over the years, Santa Claus crept in from the North, as well as the evergreen tree.  Since these Christmas traditions were part of the American culture of the neighboring Panama Canal Zone for almost one hundred years, it rubbed into our own way of life.

Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Joseph. Other characters from the nativity story such as shepherds, the Magi, and angels may be displayed near the manger in a barn (or cave) intended to accommodate farm animals. A donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene, as well as camels belonging to the Magi.

Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public lands and in public buildings.

After a decline of nacimientos in Panama for many years, the tradition is slowly coming back.  I’m noticing more nacimientos in churches, commercial entities and homes.  Panamanian families are struggling to rescue a tradition that almost went into oblivion replaced by Santa Claus and the Christmas tree.

My wife placed a nacimiento in a small table in our living room yesterday afternoon following our Christian traditions.  We are preparing the scenario for the upcoming celebration of Christmas.  A Christmas wreath was also placed on our front door.  Diligently I took a shot of the birthplace to share our Christmas customs with the readers of Lingua Franca.  It will give you an idea how Christmas is celebrated in this part of the world.

Snapshot of a nativity scene in the living room of our house. It is part of the Christmas tradition in Panama and many countries in Latin America and Spain. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
For us, a Christmas without a “nacimiento” is no Christmas at all. This year we don’t have a Santa Claus or a Christmas tree in our house. We have decided to go back to our roots. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.

2 thoughts on “The Tradition of “Nacimientos” in Panama”

  1. What a lovely tradition. Nativity scenes are very much a part of life here, too, and some of my friends – especially Italians – have marvelous sets that they add a piece to each year.

    What I like best about my tree is the ornaments. None have been “just bought”. All of them carry memories of a time in life, a certain place, and so on. One of the greatest mysteries of my life is the disappearance of a carved nativity set I brought back from Liberia. It was there, and then it wasn’t. The most reasonable explanation is that it might have been taken or lost during a move – hard to say.
    I miss it, but things do get shed along the way!

  2. Hi Linda:

    Yes, in the path of life, some things are left behind; the ones that are still with us are full of fragments of memories acquired during the journey through time and space.

    I hope you someday find your missing item; it could be where you least expect it to be.

    Warm Regards,


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