Panamanian New Years Eve Traditions

Cynthia Lehman

A funny thing happened on my way to Panama City the other day. While driving on the Pan-American Highway I noticed full size, life like, ‘people’ alongside the road. Ok, one of them was a monster (see photo) but who doesn’t know some people like that? They had signs on, or in front of them. So of course I had to stop and take a picture. It turns out they are part of a Panamanian New Year’s tradition and can be found in front of homes all across the country. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve the life size mannequins, muñeco, as they are called, are exploded – some people burn them but exploding seems more fun – symbolically saying goodbye to the old year. It is to keep the fights, the gossip, the evil and memories in the past. The muñecos can symbolize people they love or don’t care for; famous people, politicians, a family member or friend. Sometimes they resemble scarecrows, or have them standing or sitting in beach chairs in the front yard. I even saw one strapped to the back of a car!

Burning the old starts the New Year with a clean slate making it fresh and new again.

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If you would like to construct a muñeco here are some suggestions according to La Red de Catalina;

* Heads can be made of coconuts, pumpkins, Paper Mache, Barbies, etc.

* Stuff the muñeco with strategically placed fireworks (place them in the head for dramatic effect) and easily burned material (newspaper, straw, dried leaves, old panties).

* The best muñecos have personalities, so add some accessories like a pipe, a wine or beer bottle, hats, jewelry – get creative!

* Display the muñeco by propping it up until New Year’s Eve when you will light it and watch the past fade away!

This is not Panama’s only New Year’s tradition. Like most countries, it is steeped in numerous customs passed down through the generations to bring prosperity, health, luck and money in the year ahead. Many date back to its Spanish, Indigenous and African roots. This is a fun time of year to compare traditions with my friends from all over the world who now reside in Panama. My German roots call for pork and sauerkraut on News Year Day.

In Panama, December 31st is important. The house must be swept inside out so all bad influences go away. The floors are then mopped with a mixture of oils and herbs to bring prosperity.

Some prepare a mixture of incense, myrrh, rosemary, cinnamon sticks and some strange balls of herbs called “smelly caraña” which is burned believing the smoke forms part of a cleansing ritual.

Others believe that a pound of rice should be spread all over the house. The only problem with this custom is cleaning up all those small grains!

I particularly like this tradition for good luck. You eat 12 grapes at midnight and count the seeds to reveal the lottery number that should be bought for the next year. Wish me luck!

On New Year’s Eve the sky is ablaze for hours with fireworks imported from China, they are for sale everywhere, and are legal.   The most spectacular display I have ever seen. We talk about it all year.

Lastly, don’t forget to partake in the most imperative Panamanian tradition for you to enjoy this year. Walking in circles with a suitcase (packed of course) to bring travel in the New Year. We look forward to it bringing you Inside Panama for adventure in the sun, sand and surf!

A bit more about Panama here!


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