It is “muñeca” season once again! This is the popular Panamanian tradition of burning a life sized effigy at midnight on the 31st. As it gets closer to the holidays, these scarecrow-looking dolls (muñeca literally translates to doll) start to crop up along the side of the road throughout the entire country.
The burning of effigies has been carried out in many cultures throughout the world. The burning of Judas, of kings at carnival, and the wicker man by the druids are traditions that continue, or have morphed and changed, adopted by new culture, for example, Burning Man. The Panamanian version of this fire ritual more resembles the European custom of creating politicians or public figures to burn as a symbol of public disapproval, especially if the person committed a crime which could not or would not be apprehended. Whatever they create, the burning signifies a purification. It’s out with the old, and in with the new!
Starting in 2019, residents of Santa Catalina began to put a giant sized spin on this Panamanian tradition which they call Burning Woman. Inspired by the work of Mavis Muller’s Burning Basket Project (an interactive ephemeral art project) and her visit to Santa Catalina in 2020, a group of women continue to build and create an interactive ritual of their own. After the Christmas holiday these ladies come together at the Estero Beach with lumber, power tools, a wide spectrum of skills, and ideas to begin planning, constructing, and the gathering of materials.
Every year, they build the frame of a giant sized female effigy (up to six meters tall) using scrap lumber and driftwood, leaving her center hollow to fill with dry materials to set a flame. Her exterior is carefully woven with local sticks and plants and she is adorned with greenery and flowers the day of the 31st. It is female hands that build the Burning Woman, but everyone is invited to add their own special adornment. Paper and string is provided to write your gratitudes, hopes, dreams, dedications, or the things you wish to release into the ethers when this temporal art sculpture is burned at midnight.
The Hotel Oasis & Surf Camp has held a long standing tradition of hosting a New Year’s Eve party at the Estero Beach with a DJ and an elaborate firework display when the clock strikes twelve. Which is where you can also take part in the Burning Woman celebration and what her creators have come to see as the making of a modern day myth. Michelle Miller (one of the founders of Burning Woman) tells us, “As old belief structures and values fall away, we are moving into a place of uncertainty in the world. It seems now more than ever we are all searching for a unifying story, a modern myth, or something we can believe in. We create Burning Woman as a messenger, who when set on fire, has the ability to carry our collective hopes and prayers for our future and the future of this planet into the Universe. When we all gather around her and focus on this one thing, this one story, people from all different countries, languages, and backgrounds are united by this moment and touched by this experience. Burning Woman gives us a reason to come together, to experience creating something as a group, and teaches us impermanence, the art of letting things go.”
Starting December 28th, you can see the building process of Burning Woman at the Oasis Beach Bar at Estero Beach. You are invited to weave your own messages and magic into her being on the 31st and to watch her come alive at midnight.