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.