Decorating for Christmas:  No Thanksgiving Debate

Today is Thanksgiving.

At least that is the case in the U.S.  Various other countries have their own Thanksgivings celebrated on other dates.  But the big Turkey-family-friends-football-shopping-blessings-materialism-travelfest holiday on the annual U.S. calendar has arrived for celebration in the land of E Pluribus Unum and among its expats scattered around the world.

As expats in Morocco we confronted more difficulty seeking to obtain the makings of a Thanksgiving meal, but found the supply stock we needed at the U.S. Embassy Commissary in Rabat (  Moreover, because we worked at an American school in Casablanca that built both U.S. and Moroccan holidays into its calendar we had a full four-day Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate in stereotypical American fashion:  cooking and gorging on Thursday (as often as possible introducing American Thanksgiving to Moroccan friends and, after Charlotte got married, to Moroccan family), followed by tryptophan-induced napping and general sluggishness, followed again by leftovers that provided the option for three more days of the same.

Panamá gives us the reverse situation.  For the last few weeks our old Riba Smith grocery store in San Miguelito and our new Riba Smith in Costa del Este have stocked cases of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce (usually the cylinder-shaped jelly kind that Audrey likes and that drops out of its can with a loud “Shhhluuurrrrp!), cases of StoveTop Stuffing (which we are not too proud to admit became an expat indulgence during our Morocco years), and unnaturally huge Butterball turkeys filling the freezer section.  Last week Brian bought a not-too-outrageous “Festive” brand turkey breast weighing 3 kilos (shy of 7 pounds) without its wings and drumsticks.  That should lead to good gravy and leftovers aplenty for days of turkey sandwiches.  (NB:  We also can get King’s Hawaiian Rolls here…SCORE!)  But that feasting will not begin until this weekend, because Audrey’s International School of Panamá has that “International” thing leading its name.  Hence, ISP’s calendar treats the fourth Thursday of November like any other typical Thursday through the school year.  Last year we opted to do our own Thanksgiving celebration on the weekend after the stateside Big Day.  We figured a two-day delay seemed a reasonable exchange for both of us spending all day in celebratory mode instead of cramming Thanksgiving into a couple hours after coming home from school on Thursday and before going to bed in order to get up for school again on Friday.  It worked, and so we will do that again this year.

Panama does not ignore American Thanksgiving completely.  This morning Brian saw online ads from some local restaurants featuring Thanksgiving specials today.

Churrería Manolo invited people (in Spanish) to “celebrate . . . with your loved ones a special #Thanksgiving with a delicious #Menu” that started with a Thanksgiving Breakfast of a “corn tortilla with shredded turkey in its sauce.”  After noon, its Thanksgiving Menu featured squash cream and house bread, a choice of turkey breast in black pepper sauce with honey or turkey breast in mushroom sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes with vegetables and glazed sweet potato.  The churrería’s dessert, of course, is a churro stuffed with apple and cinnamon.

Portolá declared (again in Spanish) that “the date of the richest meal of the year has arrived,” before introducing it not as a Thanksgiving menu but as a Christmas menu.  This captures better our experience with Thanksgiving in Panamá:  Thanksgiving does not rate here.  Christmas is King.

No one wonders whether to wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate for Christmas.  Generally speaking, Panamanians are too busy with their own five . . . yes, FIVE . . . national holidays that appear each November to get excited about an American turkey holiday.  This year doubles down on that, because Americans giving thanks today comes just three days before the bicentennial of Panama’s independence from Spain in 1821 on November 28.

This plethora of November holidays not only squeezes out any hope American expats might have for celebrating American Thanksgiving on Thursday instead of a couple days later, it also presents a completely different marketing environment than in the U.S.  Plenty of stores and restaurants and municipal governments and individual homes in the U.S. still stand by Thanksgiving as the unofficial official kickoff to the Christmas season, for all that means spiritually and festively and commercially.  Sure, plenty of others seek to push it earlier than Thanksgiving, but the debate over the appropriateness of that rages hotly.  And in our travels we have marvelled at the power of American commercialism to spread the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping fests to other continents that do not celebrate American Thanksgiving, with that as a Christmas season kickoff not appearing unusual.

But in Panamá the entire month of November takes on a festive feel as soon as Halloween’s costumes come off and kids come down from their sugar highs.  (To be clear, Halloween is not a big thing in Panamá either, but the commercial and American expat forces seek to build that up as well.)  Panamanian flags and red-white-and-blue bunting go up in schools and shopping malls and neighborhoods and apartment building lobbies to mark the first three holidays on November 3-4-5.  But candy canes, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, and Santas also appear in abundant grocery store displays, and once the earlier patriotic holidays finish, Christmas decor pours out of stores and neighborhoods like the floods that follow our daily thunderstorm downpours (that soon should wane into the dry season Panamians call “summer”).  Roundabouts in roadways sport strings of Christmas light displays made to look like Christmas trees several stories tall.  Courtyards of commercial buildings and shopping malls put up and decorate trees 20, 30, 40 feet high or more.  Christmas music – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English – pipes through speakers.  In the Town Center mall, just three blocks from our new home, a huge teddy bear (appropriately masked for Panama’s COVID-19 protocols) wearing a Santa hat at least 15 feet high sits next to a big Christmas tree at least 10 feet taller and a large, plush, red bench with a sign that advertises it as Santa’s seat.  (We do not know if that is for display only, or if Santa appears now and then to have pictures taken with kids while sitting on his cushy bench.)  In sum, this place goes Christmas crazy throughout the month of November and continues all through la navidad (Christmas).  Thanksgiving as the kickoff to Christmas?  Not a chance. Not here.

And so we turn attention to our abode.  When we moved at the beginning of this month from our house in San Miguelito to our condo in Costa del Este, we brought with us the boxed artificial tree that we put up for our COVID Christmas last year.  (  As of today, it remains boxed on a shelf in the guest room closet.  We figure the rest of Panama has done more than enough decorating throughout the month of November to cover us for a few more weeks without us oozing holiday cheer.  We do not feel Scroogey and call Christmas a humbug.  We just feel tired from a busy last few months of negotiating, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling into our new home.  We suspect that once Brian starts listening to AccuRadio Christmas music stations, the tree will appear . . . perhaps even with an ornament or two (unless we opt again for Audrey’s brilliant decor theme from last year).

So Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating it today or later this weekend.  We count our family and friends as our greatest blessings, and wish you all the best today and every day.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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