The Pope, a Statue, and a Parade

It all began in the 1960s when a statue of the Christ child was blessed by the Pope, brought back to Cuenca from Rome, and a tradition was born. This statue, the Nino Viajero (child traveler), became the impetus for Cuenca’s largest celebration of the year, a children’s parade on Christmas Eve.

The focus of the parade are the statues of the baby Jesus. The first statue was made in 1823 when Josefa Heredia of Cuenca commissioned a local artist to create such a statue. One hundred years later, it came into the possession of the local Monsignor, Miguel Cordero Crespo. The Monsignor took the statue to Rome in 1961 where Pope John XXIII gave it his blessing. Monsignor Crespo then brought the statue back to Cuenca, displayed it with a parade, and the festival has grown every year since.

The Pase del Nino, or parade of the child, re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, begins at about 10:00 in the morning and proceeds along El Centro streets throughout the day, ending about 7 hours later.  Children dress up in sacred or secular costumes, march through the streets, and join the revelry, along with floats, horses, dancers, stilt walkers, and musicians. People line the streets all day to observe the children and to kick off the Christmas season. The parade has continually become more secular. Recently, the Three Wisemen have followed their star on motorcycles, and Mary and Joseph have done cartwheels down the street.

I attempted to take pictures of the parade, but I couldn’t get close enough. The pressing crowds prevented much movement behind blockade fences. I’ll leave the picture taking to the professionals from atop trucks. See here a 23-minute video in Spanish of the parade:

Cuenca’s festive celebration has been a latecomer to honor the Christ child. The Spanish actually introduced the observance to Latin America some 500 years earlier. However, over the years the parade has taken hold predominately in Cuenca and is considered the largest in Latin America.

As many as 50,000 may participate in the parade, while 150,000 will line the streets to watch. The parade is actually made up of smaller units, neighborhoods and nearby towns, each carrying their own statue of the baby Jesus. The parade brings visitors, expats, Cuencanos, and the Indigenous together to become one big family expressing peace and hope for the coming New Year.

Fact: Cuenca is often seen as the capital of artistic abilities and culture in Ecuador
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Felice Navidad

I’m dreaming of a green Christmas. The song is the same, but there is no snow, no cold, no skinny dipping in freezing water, no ice fishing, no playing golf with black balls. Here in Panamá, Christmas traditions are very similar to those in the North, but without the snow, cold, and ice.

The beloved carols are sung with the same music, but the words are different. Red and green are everywhere; twinkling lights explode their colors wherever a string can be strung; marchers parade the streets; Santa Claus appears everywhere at once; nativity scenes, big and small, proliferate; children tear into their presents.

No, you can’t build a snowman but, if you’re at the beach, you could build a sandman. No, you can’t snow ski, but maybe you could water ski. Hot chocolate is probably not on the menu, but there is the ubiquitous fruit cake. A traditional dinner might be arroz con guandú with pork. Guandú, also known as pigeon pea, is a legume that grows in the Western mountainous region of Panamá. Peas, rice, and pork is one of the traditional Christmas dinners for family gatherings around the table. Another is turkey but without the stuffing and gravy. Instead, turkey slices are covered au jus with mixed or finely chopped vegetables.

Panamanians are not left behind when it comes to eggnog. It is as prevalent here as in the North. You can find it in the grocery stores in plain or high octane versions (rum). These are known as ponche de huevo or ron ponche, respectively.

As if the joyful noise of singing or the ringing of church bells are not enough, a Panamanian tradition is the exploding of fireworks. Panamanians love fireworks and Christmas is another occasion to ignite the wick-like fuses. These fireworks are just the warmup for New Year’s Eve when all hell breaks loose. That’s a whole other story.

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