Christmas Near the Equator

Jessica A. Bandel

It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that huge moments in our nation’s past do not happen in a vacuum, that other lesser-known but no less important events and developments are unfolding concurrently. And so this week, as we all prepare for delicious food, gift exchanges, and quality time spent with family and friends, our blog post will venture far from European battlefields to yet another place North Carolina soldiers were stationed: Panama.

The United States military maintained a presence in Panama for ninety-six years, beginning with the purchase of the failed French canal enterprise in 1903. As American engineers of all stripes poured into the area to undertake the massive construction project, several military bases and camps were constructed to protect American assets and citizens in the Canal Zone: Forts Randolph, Sherman, Amador, Grant, and Delesseps, which variously housed Army and Navy forces, and two Marine Corps installations, Camps Gaillard and Otis.

This story has a bit of a personal connection for me. My family and I lived there in the early 1990s, just a few years before the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977 ceded control of the canal to the Panamanian government. I can imagine them now, these farm boys from rural North Carolina, seeing for the first time iguanas, sloths, toucans, monkeys, and brilliantly colored frogs. Mangos, bananas, coconuts, and avocados could be found on trees just as naturally as peaches and apples back on the farm. For an American far from home, seeing these sights feels, and must have felt to these young men, like something close to magic.

Henry L. Mays, of the 5th Infantry Regiment, regaled family and friends in Robeson County with exotic stories of hunting alligators, spotting jaguars, and being annoyed by the endless “chatter” of the parrots and parakeets. His company, Company I, had taken for pets a monkey named von Hindenburg and a boa constrictor measuring eighteen feet. A reader of Winston-Salem’s Union Republican who was stationed at Fort Amador, radio sergeant Hugh H. Stevenson, recounted similar experiences, telling folks that iguanas weren’t much to look at but “very good to eat” and that he had recently caught a shark measuring more than seventeen feet.

Surrounded by the dense growth of the tropical rainforest and all the creatures that inhabit it, the Christmas holiday must have felt especially bizarre to them. Due to the country’s location so near the equator, December temperatures often hover in the 80s. In fact, it’s pretty much summer year-round there. But that didn’t keep the soldiers from celebrating the season. “Christmas and New Year will soon be here and from Panama I send good cheer to friends and comrades I knew well when wandering round dear old Robeson,” wrote Mays on December 16, 1917.

Soldiers and sailors could buy Christmas trees ($0.60 for a small, $0.90 for a medium, and $1.90 for a large), ornaments, decorations, and holiday turkeys through the commissary. A wide assortment of baked goods, including fruitcake, rolls, and breads, could be purchased through government operated bakeries. Specialty items—toys, hats, books, china dishes, silverware, and more—were shipped in for shoppers in search of gifts. So many roller skates had been sold during the 1917 holiday season that motorists were warned to watch the roadways for children and others learning to skate.

But what is Christmas without the holiday dinner? Don’t worry; the Americans got that too. An unnamed soldier from Asheville who was stationed in Panama during the 1917 Christmas holiday assured his hometown that he and his fellow comrades were not “forgotten nor neglected by Uncle Sam on Christmas.” An enclosed menu card read as follows: oyster soup and crackers; celery, olives, and pickles; roast turkey, oyster dressing, and cranberry sauce; roast loin of pork and apple sauce; baked sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes; mincemeat pie, peas, corn, salad, and young onions; bread and butter; and grape juice and lemonade to drink. For dessert, the men had ribbon cake, fruit cake, plum pudding, grapes, oranges, bananas, apples, nuts, and mixed candy. Cigars, of course, rounded out the whole meal.

As we look back on the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform one hundred years ago, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we have members of the armed forces stationed all over the globe this holiday season, that they are far removed from loved ones and are no doubt missing home. To all those who are stationed overseas, we wish you Merry Christmas (if you celebrate), happy holidays (if you don’t), and a wonderful New Year!