You may not know this, but I grew up in the Canal Zone, in Panama. Every Christmas break when I lived there, seeing as we were 90 minutes from amazing beautiful beaches and had two weeks free, we’d spend at least a few days up in the native country enjoying nature, warm beaches, and the scenery.
And part of that, as we drove up the PanAmerican highway to the beaches, was seeing the muñecos lining the roads. These life-sized dolls were usually fairly primitively constructed, but would be dressed in local style, usually with a hat on, positioned either standing or sitting out beside the road. Some enterprising folks would even run strings from their muñeco’s hand through a tree branch or fence pole, and back to their house or porch chair–making it possible for their muñeco to wave at passing traffic!
Photo credits: Clyde & Terry Coles
The muñecos are specific to the western (Pacific) coast of Panama, specifically in the Chame/San Carlos region, but have spread over the years to various other locations.
The muñecos serve a specific purpose in Panamanian tradition, as explained by local realtor Cynthia Lehman
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…
Burning the old starts the New Year with a clean slate making it fresh and new again.
All muñeco photos courtesy of Clyde & Terry Coles
Along the Gringo Trail
In many ways, I think the muñecos tradition is a beautiful memento mori. What could be better to remind you that you’re dying and that you need to seize the day every day than symbolically cremating your worst habits and the negative things you’d like to release ahead of starting a new year?