The Panama Canal Zone was a U.S. territory from 1903 to 1979 in Panama, a tropical Latin American country. Most of its residents came from states with cold and snowy Christmases. Where the Zonians lived was quite different. Christmas comes to Panama at the start of the dry season. The frequent rainfall of the long wet season stops. Unwatered lawns become patches of crunchy brown grass, and a variety of thirsty jungle animals invade the watered lawns, including armadillos, sloths, and venomous snakes. Daily temperatures stay in the eighties.
In this environment unlike most American Christmases, Zonians maintained the traditions of the holiday and added customs of their own. The Panama Canal Company shipped Christmas trees from Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and households decorated them with ornaments from the states. After a month on a ship, these trees dried up and dropped needles quickly. Many families loaded them up with tinsel to thicken their appearance. By Christmas Day, the trees were fire hazards and came down shortly after that.
Youngsters would collect them for a neighborhood bonfire. The rivalry between neighborhoods made swiping each other’s trees part of this activity, and we would hide our trees in the jungle. Those careless enough to leave a trail of tinsel hanging from the tropical undergrowth would lose their trees to tinsel trackers. One year to protect our tree stash, my friends and I locked them in my family’s walk-in basement. Unfortunately, my parents were not thrilled about having a pile of dry tinder under the house, and we had to take our chances with our jungle hideaways.
Like their countrymen back in the states, many Zonians enjoyed putting up elaborate house and lawn decorations and often incorporated elements of their surroundings in their displays. My favorite was a Santa in a Panamanian hat standing in a dugout canoe (called a cayuco) pulled by an alligator-like critter called a caiman with a red light for a nose. Most Santas in the yard displays did not wear red suits but red plaid Bermuda shorts and gaudy Hawaiian shirts.
The dry season provided opportunities for more events to take place outside. Balboa High School held its annual Christmas concert on the school’s front lawn. This season also allowed kids to go sledding without getting covered in mud. There was no snow, of course, but we flattened cardboard boxes and fashioned them into sleds. Another favorite was to use the sheath of a palm frond, discarded by the tree, as part of its self-pruning. These had smooth exteriors that made them fast. There was no steering mechanism, so one had no idea how the ride would finish when starting down a hill.
Part of our family tradition was to go into Panama City and visit Panamanian friends, where I saw some fantastic Nativity scenes called Nascimentos. I recall one with the manger in the center and a model of Bethlehem, with 10 times the edifices the real town might have had surrounding it. Each tiny structure had at least one light shining through its window. Above Bethlehem, a “heavenly host” assortment of angels and cherubs hovered. Driving home from one such visit, we went through an impoverished part of the city, and I was moved by the strings of colored lights around the doors and windows of the shanties. Poverty did not stop the spirit of Christmas.
The Panama Canal Zone has vanished, but it was an unusual American community while it was here, and Zonian Christmases were as unique as the community itself.
Steve Bailey grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, was educated in Minnesota, and taught middle school for thirty-two years in Virginia. He can be contacted at vamarcopolo.com.
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