Culturally Compounded Christmas(es)

On Monday we took down our Christmas tree.  While this year our season stopped prematurely with nine ladies dancing, rather than going all the way through twelve drummers drumming before bidding adieu to the partridge in our fir tree, we could engage fully in the promise of 2023 only after closing out Christmas 2022.  Besides, more than five weeks of Christmas stretching from “tree up” to “tree down” should suffice despite cutting short the “Twelve Days” calendar.  And we do not need a brittle and dried tree up to acknowledge the Wise Men when they arrive at the manger for Epiphany later this week.

Panamá starts its journey toward Christmas even earlier than those in the U.S. who insist on starting an endless loop of Christmas music on and Christmas movies on Amazon Prime as soon as they awake to the smells of baking pies and roasting turkey on Thanksgiving Day.  In Panamá, the coming of November, with its five national holidays spread throughout the month, kicks off the Christmas season.  Initially competing in stores and public spaces with displays of national pride for the two different Independence Days and other celebrations during el Mes de la Patria (Homeland Month), Christmas bunting, trees, packages, and Santas wax through the month as patriotic themes wane.  Back in the U.S., practitioners of the Thanksgiving Launch endeavor to keep their Christmas trees from drying out between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  This pales in comparison to the anti-drying challenge faced by Panamanians who buy their trees (imported from Quebec) nearly a month earlier than the first trees appear for sale stateside.  Having discovered the availability of real trees a year ago for our second Panamanian Christmas, we knew where to shop this year.  The tree vending stand once again popped up in the corner of a Super 99 grocery store parking lot in early November.  We held off buying a tree for nearly a month, and brought it home Thanksgiving weekend like any good red-blooded American desiring a brown and dried out tree by Christmas would do.  Finding the sweet spot for when to buy a tree here requires balancing the dryness factor with the reality that trees disappear much sooner than in the U.S.:  At least two weeks before Christmas, the trees were gone and all evidence of the vending stand had disappeared.

Putting up our tree this year led us backwards in time.  Our storage shipment from Bellingham (WA) to Panamá last June included a couple big boxes of Christmas decorations that bent the space-time continuum back through years of Christmases with Margaret and Charlotte as babies, girls, and teens.  For the first time in nearly a decade, our tree had ornaments made by the girls in their preschool tenures.  It even had the favorite ornament of Brian’s mother:  a silver and gold glitter-covered toilet paper roll ornament Brian made and gave to her when he was in preschool, and which she gifted back to us several years ago.  This loot having been boxed away long before our girls became adults with their own lives in which Christmas does not factor, we had fun sending them pictures of things they had made two decades ago and getting text and emoji groans from them in reply.  The nostalgia factor made this the first Christmas since moving abroad that we really felt settled and home as we celebrated the holiday.  Not only did we have years of family Christmas history with us, but Brian sang five Christmas concerts over two weeks in the two different music groups he joined a year ago.  It was good to reacquaint ourselves with our Christmas past.  But it also was good to celebrate Christmas with an international flair.

Among our favorite things about living abroad ranks the potpourri of cultural exchange that can occur.  Of course, we have our everyday experiences living in Panamá just from driving to work, shopping for groceries, or even just taking a walk.  But now and then one sips from a special mug of culture steeping deeply in a worldly blend of ingredients as the hallmark not merely of living internationally but of international living.  For example, while we loved our four years living in Morocco, one special night we treasure happened while our school hosted an International Baccalaureate representative evaluating GWA’s preparations for becoming an IB School.  Gathered for a send-off dinner at Casablanca’s Relais de Paris restaurant with the consultant, who had traveled from elsewhere in Northern Africa, and roughly a dozen GWA faculty and staff, the table buzzed with simultaneous conversations in at least three languages (and many people switching languages effortlessly depending on the people with whom they spoke in any moment).

Such was our Christmas weekend for this 2022 Navidad.  Through two days, we had three Christmas dinners, each with its own distinct cultural flair that aggregated into one marvelous culturally rich Christmas celebration.

We hosted Christmas Dinner #1 in our home, inviting our painter Alejandro and his friend Oswaldo (who came to help him a few times during the four and a half months of our renovation project) to experience a traditional American Christmas dinner.  We do not know what cultural taboos we may have invoked by inviting our painter to Christmas dinner, but we did not care.  Daughter Charlotte said multiple times about Alejandro during the four and a half months he spent with us, “Now he’s family.”  During July and August while they visited from Morocco, grandson Adam addressed him daily in Darija as “Uncle Jandro.”  So as the project originally envisioned to take four or five weeks stretched on and on, Brian teased Alejandro that he would still be around at Christmas.  Alejandro always joked back, “Me gusta la cena navideña con jamón.”  (“I like Christmas dinner with ham.”)  So even after he finished the project, and knowing that he had no plans to visit family in the Interior over the holidays, we decided to invite him to join us for Christmas.  When we learned that Oswaldo also would be without family on Christmas Eve, and that December 24 was his birthday, we asked Alejandro to extend our invitation to him as well.  

We spent the day before Christmas Eve shopping for a new mattress (Merry Christmas to us!) and pursuing other errands during which Waze steered us through a labyrinth of downtown streets in a failed effort to avoid traffic packed tightly with pre-Christmas shoppers.  Then we braved the grocery aisles of Riba Smith that were just as crazy to navigate as Panama’s streets outside.  One of our favorite busboys, Aymar, picked Brian out from the crowd of shoppers and said, “Hello, Mr. Brian…Merry Christmas!”  As he bagged our groceries and wheeled them out to our car, Brian commented on how busy the store was.  “Wait until tomorrow morning!” replied Aymar.  As a final task, Brian went to the Gourmet Deli to get one cake for our table and another that we could bring to our hosts for Christmas Dinner #3 on Sunday.  It had been picked through pretty severely, but still had one small strawberry cheesecake and one large Oreo cheesecake – perfect pickins for what we needed.

Then on the morning of Christmas Eve, while Brian prepped for our dinner projected for 1:00 pm, Audrey returned to Riba Smith for several more things we forgot the day before.  Just as Aymar foretold, Riba’s was a madhouse of activity bolstered further by a live band playing an international mix of Christmas music.  After hunting wildly for a shopping cart, she succeeded in buying flowers and beer, but gave up on the rest of her short list and headed home to help with dinner prep.

With ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots, and rolls in process, our cultural exchange began.  At 11:45 am Alejandro texted Brian asking for confirmation of when he and Oswaldo should arrive.  Knowing they were coming from across the Canal (from early-July to mid-November, Alejandro typically spent 2 ½ hours in morning bridge traffic traveling from his home to ours), but knowing also that such an early time was insanely early for Panamanians, Brian reminded him of the 1:00 pm target.  Not unexpectedly, Alejandro sought to confirm 1:00 in the afternoon and not 1:00 in the morning, then asked if 2:00 pm was too late to arrive.  Brian told him 2:00 was fine and Alejandro said they would arrive at 2:00 or sooner.  So, of course, they arrived after 3:00…right on time for Panama.

We welcomed them, wished them Merry Christmas, and for the next four hours we had a spectacular speaking-nothing-but-Spanish time.  We started with conversation in the living room, then moved to the dining room table for dinner.  Our friends gorged on the meal.  After the four of us downed the first platter of ham, Brian reloaded it in the kitchen and they again emptied it in short order.  (Even still, the leftover ham fed us with sandwiches and soup for days afterwards.)  Oswaldo got a real kick out of us all singing “Happy Birthday” – them in Spanish and us in English – to him and Jesus before he blew out the two candles (one for him, one for Jesus) on top of the strawberry cheesecake for dessert.  After dinner we returned to the living room for more conversation that stretched from the World Cup to Panamanian politics.  We sent them home with the rest of Oswaldo’s birthday cake (figuring that Jesus would not be eating it), with many thanks and wishes of Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año y Felicidad.  Having hosted many Christmas dinners during our married life, it felt so good to have guests join us again this year.

Then we switched gears, heading out to the day’s Christmas Dinner #2 in the Patilla neighborhood of downtown Panamá.  A staff member at Audrey’s school had invited us to join her expat and Panamanian family and friends for a more traditional Panamanian Christmas meal.  Scheduled to start at 7:00 pm, we arrived Panamanian style at 8:00 pm.  Our Über pulled up with the host couple standing at the building’s entrance greeting other guests as they arrived.  We went inside, toured their apartment, and joined the guests for appetizers and conversation mixed between Spanish and English.  Then we sat down to dinner.  One Panamanian favorite dish at Christmas is arroz con guandu (rice with pigeon peas), something we had not had the opportunity to try with COVID curtailing our first two Panamanian Christmases.  The same goes for Panamanian tamales.  Each Latin American country seems to have its own version of these.  In Panamá, they are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.  Our hosts offered pork, chicken, and beef tamales made in the Interior by someone they knew, and the corn dough was cooked with raisins and olives and flavored with spices.  The table also featured cooked plantains that served the starchy-sweet role that sweet potatoes play in American holiday meals, and Rosca de Navidad, the ubiquitous woven wreath of egg bread that takes over grocery stores in the Christmas season.  The meal also had turkey and gravy and ham, though we presume (perhaps incorrectly) that was less Panamanian than for expats joining the celebration.  After stuffing ourselves for the second big meal just hours after the first, we rolled home and almost got to sleep before the midnight Christmas fireworks launched across the city.  Panamanians love their fireworks, and our 45th floor kitchen windows offer a 180 degree view of the cacophonous individual displays that continued raucously for at least 15 minutes past midnight.

In the morning we woke to a FaceTime Christmas call with both our girls, one in Phoenix and one in Casablanca.  Then we lounged around lazily for several hours before dressing for our early afternoon departure to Christmas Dinner #3.  This was an international affair hosted by a Dutch-Brazilian family with a guest list of a couple dozen people that included Panamanians, Americans, Colombians, Germans, Brazilians, Netherlanders, and others.  The potluck groaning table in the dining room likewise featured more arroz con guandu along with a mixed bevy of dishes, and more turkey and ham.  While we ate and enjoyed delightful conversation at a long string of tables assembled on the terrace, the food table inside converted to a dessert smorgasbord to sustain us further during a rousing White Elephant Gift game.  The game went through several polite people before gift-stealing began in earnest and continued through the final number.  We went home satisfied once again with good food and good company.  Filled even more than our stomachs were our hearts with all the open exchanges of good will and good culture we experienced over two days.  God bless us, everyone.

Having savored the richness of our culturally compounded Christmas events, we figured nothing more this season would match it.  So on Monday we stripped the tree, boxed the ornaments and other decorations we had throughout our home.  Yesterday we prepared the tree to be taken away by the building staff, wrapping it in plastic bags like a dead body and putting it in the lobby outside our front door for them to take away for us.  It was a good tree, a good Christmas, and a good end to an often-challenging 2022.  We look forward to what blessings 2023 will bring, starting with the first of what we hope will be many visitors in the new year arriving this weekend.

Próspero año y felicidad.

On your mark, get set, here we go!