Thanksgiving for Two: November Holidays in Panama

One year ago we hosted a mini-Thanksgiving celebration in our Casablanca apartment – just Audrey, Brian, our daughter Charlotte, and our new son-in-law Zak.  With just four people, our table spread – of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, Commissary-purchased Stove-Top Stuffing and Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, and Brian’s apple pie – compared humbly to what larger groupings across the U.S. and in American expat gatherings around the world likely enjoyed.  We enjoyed it, though, and noted Zak’s cross-cultural experience marked by his return trips to the kitchen for seconds, thirds, and fourths of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy on his plate.

This year, having moved from Morocco to Panama, we celebrated Thanksgiving just the two of us in our big house in San Miguelito on the northeast side of Panama City.  As happened across the U.S. and in American expat homes around the world, COVID took its toll on the ability to gather with others.  Moreover, because Audrey worked all day on Thursday we decided – since it was just the two of us – that we would celebrate on Saturday instead of on Thursday.  One good mark COVID has left on us, as with so many, is a heightened appreciation of all the many blessings for which we are thankful…

…And with it, our heightened efforts to express that thankfulness not on one designated day, but always.  So, since we try to make every day Thanksgiving Day, what does it matter to do it officially on Saturday instead of on Thursday?

Some of our favorite family memories raising our girls hail back to Thanksgivings past with the four of us spending all day cooking together in the kitchen, or hosting extended family staying with us for the holiday.  With just the two of us, we again spent the day together cooking in the kitchen while keeping to a restrained menu.  When the Riba Smith grocery store three minutes from our house (which caters to many expat tastes) dedicated a huge portion of its frozen food section to Thanksgiving supplies a couple weeks ago, we bought a turkey breast to roast.  Riba Smith also got a shipment of Stove Top Stuffing (which we shamelessly say has become an expat treat for us when we can find it), so we had BOTH mashed potatoes AND stuffing…and Audrey found Ocean Spray cranberry sauce at Riba Smith as well.  To go with turkey, potatoes, and stuffing, Brian tossed the “gravy packet” of chemical nastiness that came with the turkey breast into the trash and, instead, made his typical gravy from scratch.  Audrey also tried her hand at steaming artichokes in her new Instant Pot.  And Brian rounded things out with apple pie for dessert.  We gave thanks for all the blessings in our lives.  We ate.  We relaxed in the IKEA rocking chairs that we shipped from Morocco (since Panama has no IKEA stores) and watched a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Amazon Prime in our “home theater” projecting from our Epson on a stepladder in the dining room more than 20 feet away onto the massive two-story wall of our living room.  The calm and quiet of the day reinforced our thankfulness, especially with so much COVID craziness flaring up again around the world (including, we fear, in Panama).

In Morocco we still celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November because GWA is an American school abroad, and thus worked American and Moroccan holidays into its annual calendar.  As an international school, ISP operates on a typical international school calendar, not an American one.  Its school year runs August through June instead of the typical Panamanian school calendar running March through December, but does not include USA-specific holidays like Thanksgiving, so we had to settle for a usual two-day weekend instead of an American four-day Thanksgiving weekend.  In our acclimation to Panama, though, it seems like Thanksgiving is the one holiday NOT included on Panamanian calendars in the month of November!

Panama has 14 official government holidays each year.  The first seven drop between New Year’s Day on January 1 and international Labor Day (May Day) on May 1.  Between those bookend dates appear Martyrs’ Day (Día de los Mártires) on January 9 (commemorating the 1964 Flag Protests that resulted in 21 Panamanian and a handful of American deaths after 150-200 Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag at Balboa High School) and the Catholic or Catholic-culture holidays of Carnival Monday, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday.  December features Panamanian Mothers Day on December 8 (a nationwide “momma-thon” in a country where respect for mothers matters, linked on the calendar to the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception – when Mary the Mother of Jesus was conceived and protected from Original Sin) and Christmas on December 25.

Which leaves five more holidays all smushed within November’s 30 days to commemorate important historical events tied to its development as an independent nation.  Panama celebrates not one independence day, but two:  chronologically, first came independence from Spain in 1821 when Panama separated from the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru and joined the Greater Republic of Colombia (consisting at that time of modern Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela); second came independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903 after the Colombian government rejected the USA’s desire to build a canal across the Panamanian isthmus and Theodore Roosevelt’s administration facilitated Panama’s declaration of independence in order to grant the U.S. rights to build the Panama Canal.  November 3 marks Separation Day, when Panama officially declared its separation from Colombia in 1903.  November 4 marks Flag Day to commemorate the new Panamanian flag created days before the 1903 declaration on November 1 by Maria de la Ossa de Amador (wife of Manuel Amador Guerrero, first President of independent Panama).  November 5 marks Colon Day, commemorating the date in 1903 when citizens of Colon, at the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Railroad, convinced Colombian troops stationed in Colon to stay there instead of following orders from Bogata and advancing to Panama City, at the Pacific terminus of the railroad, where the declaration of separation had taken place two days prior.  Had the Colombian troops crossed the isthmus to move on Panama City, they likely could have quashed the orchestrated but not widespread independence effort.  A few days later, Panama harkens back eight decades earlier to the Los Santos Uprising Day (Primer Grito de Independencia de la Villa de los Santos) on November 10, commemorating the date in 1821 that Rufina Alfaro, a young woman living in la Villa de Los Santos roughly 300 kilometers (shy of 200 miles) west of Panama City, shouted, “¡Viva la Libertad!” (“Long live liberty!) and led villagers armed with sticks and stones to take the Spanish barracks without spilling any blood, launching the independence movement that resulted in the less than three weeks later in Panama’s declaration of independence from Spain on November 28 (celebrated now as Independence Day) and its joining of the Greater Republic of Colombia.

Consequently, November is a month of holidays during which time people tend to focus more on vacations than on school and work.  ISP teachers, students, staff, and administration may have had school as normal (as much as online school now seems “normal”) on Thanksgiving, but the first week and a half of November had school closed in recognition of the first four holidays of the month.  Panamanian flags and bunting of red, white, and blue adorned streets and buildings everywhere as the month started and have stayed up through the month except where replaced by Christmas decor.  Even the guard station at the gate of our neighborhood got festive with patriotic colors (see the photograph with this post), and remains festooned as such as we move into December.  Interestingly, as a side note, despite not having Thanksgiving in its lineup of November holidays Panama nonetheless sports big Black Friday sales in its advertising.  We masked up and gloved up last Friday – a day before our own Thanksgiving celebration – to shop for furniture we have wanted to complete the process of making the house we rent into the home we want, finding a great deal at an (American) Ashley Furniture store far away from crowds in downtown Panama City and expecting living room and dining room completion upon upcoming delivery at the end of this week.

On the downside of all these festivities, just as we saw in Morocco when relaxing pandemic precautions combined with holidays (in Morocco’s case, the end of Ramadan), after a month of Panamanians gathering with family and friends for the November holiday season, the number of daily new COVID cases has more than doubled from its pre-November numbers, with the total number of active cases whiplashing from a reasonable rate of decline to a sharp increase; and the number of daily deaths jumping from six on November 1 to nearly 20 per day at the end of the month.  We will see what that brings in terms of renewed restrictions, hoping it does not mean we return to men and women going out for limited hours on separate days.  As of today, tightening up is starting again in some parts of the country; just not yet in the capital where we live.  But whatever it brings, we will adjust accordingly, and we will remain thankful.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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