Holy Week in Boquete, Panama

San Juan Bautista Church, Boquete, Panama

Easter here is different than in the States, that’s for certain. There’s SO  many ways this last week was different for me. Panama clearly has different ideas of the separation of church and state, and it shows. It’s also a Catholic country, so Easter presented itself differently than it has to me in the past, since my upbringing was very traditionally Protestant.

Intellectually, I knew that lines between church and state aren’t quite as clearly defined here, but it really hit me on Maundy Thursday, when we went to buy our $2.39 liter of (quite passable) wine. We couldn’t.  All through out Panama, on the Holy Days, no alcohol is sold. When I say “Throughout” and “No”, I mean exactly that — alcohol sales are forbidden not just in grocery and liquor stores, but in bars and restaurants too, everywhere in Panama. Quite a shock to the young backpackers who are here for spring break. Something different than what we’re used to, but I thought I understood the logic behind the thinking, until I found out that alcohol sales resumed again not on Monday, which would have sort of made sense, but on Saturday.  Not sure I get that, but that’s the way it is.

Of course, the problem with keeping alcohol away from people for two days is what they do when the bars open up again  — party, party, party!  I recorded a couple of clips of what we could hear from our house last night, which is about a quarter of a mile from the bar (and the bar is about 50 yards from the church) generating the music.  Too bad I can’t figure out how to include them in my blog — the file type doesn’t seem to be allowed.  Suffice it to say that it was way louder in my living room than I would want a bar to be if I were actually there!  Hmm, the fact that I say that automatically identifies me as pushing rapidly through middle age, doesn’t it??

The religious part of the Easter celebration was even more different for me. It seems  that the Latin culture brings heightened pageantry to the traditional Catholic celebration.  Roads throughout the town were cordoned off on Good Friday for the Procession of the Stations of the Cross.  As far as I know, that’s an entirely Catholic  tradition, at least, it’s not something I’d ever heard of before my very first date with Mark. We were sight-seeing in NYC the day after Christmas and stopped in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not far from Rockefeller Center, and he explained the tradition to me . {For any other non-Catholics reading this, Wikipedia also has a nice explanation : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stations_of_the_Cross }

Our participation in the Procession actually started long before its traditional commencement. There was a family working on putting up one of the displays  on the corner by our house. They saw us coming back from a walk, and approached a little hesitantly, asking us something in Spanish. It took me a while to figure it out, but what they wanted was a place to plug-in the lights. Of course we said they could use our outlet. It felt good to know that we were helping out!

Lots of effort went into putting up the Station by our house

We gathered at the church at 7:30, part of a huge, multi-generational crowd. It was touching to see babies and parents, teenagers and grandparents, all joining together for this remembrance.

There were three floats put together for the crowd to follow, and the procession was led by a police car. We followed the first float, which had no wheels — it was carried by  12 or so men. Immediately you could see that there could be issues.

Our camera isn't very good at night but look closely, and you'll the wires in the background

Look closely and you will see the height difference between the float and the electrical wires hanging on the street. That would be a show stopper in the US, but here, they were prepared. The  float was accompanied by a man with a very tall stick, with a “Y” at the top. Electric wires in the way? No prob. The procession slowed long enough to give the guy time to push the wires up and out of harm’s way, so we could proceed. That’s not a SHEQ/OSHA approved process at any company I know of, but it worked fine here.

I did find it a little odd that people gathered at the corners and intersections to watch the procession — lots and lots of gringos, in fact. It really wasn’t much to see with the procession itself – a few hundred people walking through the streets of Boquete, with three homemade floats. One of them seemed to really highlight the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism (is that even a word?) with a  far more elaborate display than any Protestant would be accustomed to seeing, showing Jesus in a glass coffin with very ornate surroundings. (Sorry I didn’t get a picture of it.) I pointed it out to Mark, who said that he thought what I was observing was more likely a representation of Latin culture, than the differences between our denominations.

The prayers were in Spanish, the music was instrumental, songs I didn’t recognize, but the faith that filled the participants was evident — no translation needed for that.

One of the Stations in town

We followed up our Friday worship with an English Mass on Easter morning. I’ve only been to a few Catholic services, and saw no differences between this one and those.

All in all, a great way to celebrate Holy Week in Panama!


The Panamanian Constitution, regarding the Separation of Church and State, does significantly differ from it’s U.S. equivalent.
Here are a few excerpts from the Panamanian Constitution.
The practice of all religions, and the exercise of all worship is free, without any limitation other than respect for Christian morality and public order. It is recognized that the Catholic religion is that of most Panamanians.
The Catholic religion will be taught in the public schools, but its learning and the attendance at religious services shall not be obligatory at the parents’ or guardians’ request.
Regardless of the wording in the Constitution, there certainly does not seem to be a shortage of non Roman Catholic places of Worship in our area as well as throughout the country.  From an outsider’s perspective, at least,  it all seems to work very well for Panama.
Like Valerie, I do find it peculiar that most businesses,and government offices, are closed on the days leading up to major holy days but not necessarily on the holy day itself.  For example, our fitness center, and many other businesses, were closed on the Monday and Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday.  However, by Ash Wednesday  morning they had reopened.  Similarly, as I walked back from the grocery store on Easter morning I was surprised to see that the main Department Store in town, which had been closed most of the weekend, was open for business.
I have participated in many celebrations of The Stations of the Cross in my day.  Granted, most of them were during my days as an altar boy and all of them were in a church.  So, like Valerie, Friday’s procession through the streets of Boquete was a unique experience for me as well.  I know that many Catholic Parishes throughout the United States have similar processions throughout their neighborhoods. However, what stuck me with this one was the way that the whole town, outside of the procession, seemed to come to a complete stop.
Also, the Stations,  which were displayed at individual homes, businesses and government offices, ranged from quite ornate to relatively simple.
Regardless, as the procession went by each one, the owners stood proudly and piously alongside their contribution to this solemn event.  Overall, Friday evening was  a great opportunity to gain a better understanding of the Panamanian culture and turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience.