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A Christmas Eve Feast in Panama | Advent Around the World

Ana Valeria Luque

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Image credit: Nicole Continelli
Christmas Eve is one of the most wonderful times of the year – not only because there’s only one day left until Christmas but because it’s when we get to eat delicious, mouth-watering food while the lights on the tree twinkle brightly, the nativity scene ever-so-beautiful as moonlight softly envelops the room. Every member of the family counts down the hours until December 25th arrives, dressed in our best clothes and sharing our favourite Christmas memories, as the tantalizing smell of dinner cooking in the oven fills the air. This time of the year is definitely merry and bright, even if this particular Christmas season hasn’t been exactly what we expected.
In Panama, every family has different Christmas Eve food traditions, but there are two that are very typical for rich and poor alike: tamales and the Panamanian Christmas bread, rosca de pan.
Panamanian tamales are banana-leaf packages filled with a mixture of corn dough and a stew of raisins, pepper, coriander, olives, and chicken or pork. The rosca, on the other hand, is a humongous bread braid with almonds on top, and it is never missing from our Christmas table.
Image courtesy of Riba Smith
Although many families actually make these, others have made a tradition out of going to buy them. I know many families – mine included – have a tradition of going to one of Panama’s oldest supermarkets (which opened in 1956), the Riba Smith, and buying pre-made tamales and the rosca de pan.
These may seem like simple dishes, but believe me: people will do ANYTHING to get their hands on the last bag of tamales or the last rosca!
But it’s good to remember that Christmas isn’t about the dishes we eat or the presents we get or the music we listen to (although it’s always lovely to listen to Andrea Bocelli). Christmas is about the rejoicing each and every one of us experiences when we remember the birth of our Saviour. We must remember that He is with us… as He has always been. Even if we might feel lonely or discouraged because this Christmas won’t be like the others we’ve lived, we must remember what St. John Paul II once wrote in a play as a young priest: “… everything else will turn out to be unimportant and inessential, except for this: Father, Child, and Love” (Radiation of Fatherhood by Fr. Karol Wojtyla, 1964).
May the miracle of Christmas fill your heart with joy and peace!
  • 1.5 kg of corn flour
  • 1.5 kg of chicken or pork
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 pinch of achiote
  • 1 cup of raisins
  • 2 chili peppers
  • 1 can of tomato puree
  • 3 coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 50 g of olives
  • 50 g of capers
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • Bell pepper
  • Banana leaves
  • A thick thread
  1. Wash the banana leaves; boil them in water for 20 minutes. Dry and reserve them.
  2. Season the chicken and the pork.
  3. Sauté the chicken and pork in hot oil to seal them.
  4. Add the chopped onion, garlic, chili, tomato, oregano, coriander, tomato puree, achiote, salt, and pepper.
  5. Add 3 cups of water and cook for a sauce to form.
  6. Once cooked, separate the juice and reserve.
  7. Combine the flour with the stew’s juice to form a dough, adding hot water if necessary.
  8. Add the olives, capers, raisins, and bell pepper to the stew.
  9. Take one of the banana leaves, lay it flat, and place a tablespoon of dough in the middle. Crush the dough a little and then add a spoonful of the stew and then another layer of dough. Wrap and tie with the thread. Repeat the procedure with all the dough and the filling.
  10. Boil the tamales for 20 minutes and serve.
A Christmas Eve tamal. Photo courtesy of Ana Valeria Luque.

Fourteen-year-old Ana Valeria Luque lives in Panama City.

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