"This Was Panama"
By Ruth C. Stuhl
Star and Herald Newspaper - December 1962

How long the annual Christmas tree burning have been a tradition on the Canal Zone, I do not know. I suppose the obvious answer would be, "as long as there have been Christmas trees." At any rate, by the 1930’s it was well-established custom.

In those pre-war days a neighborhood tree burning was not a quit affair organized by the adults for a ring of admiring kiddies. Parents provided refreshments and enough supervision on the big night to prevent property damage and any inadvertent barbecuing go toddlers. The children who had passes an anxious week forage for trees and guarding them whooped it up around the bonfire like happy little savages.

Even before Christmas, neighborhood youngsters made the rounds promises of trees. No discarded Christmas tree remanded in sight for long. It was whisked away to a hiding place from the first child who spotted it. Maid’s rooms, garages, and hallways were filled and caches were made in the woods on Ancon Hill and in sawgrasses on Sosa Hill. All this was a organized activity on a neighborhood basis with one or more of the boys assuming recognized leadership.

Credit for accumulating the greatest numbered of trees usually was given to the San Juan Hill gang. They were considered a tough gang to steal from - and successfully hiding and guarding one hundred Christmas trees is no mean feat. My own Tavernilla Street was fairly successful.

I remember best the year that the late Lewis Prager was captain of my neighborhood. Our raiding parties ranged over all of Balboa. We filled the available Maid’s rooms and garage, and faced with the problem of finding additional space, Lewis obtained the permission to store our trees in the basement of the Scottish Rite Temple. This was a definite advantage since once we were able to get the trees there without being intercepted, they were safely locked away.

There have seemed to be no rules except to avoid giving injury. Anyone’s trees were fair game and once a gang began to accumulate them, members of other gangs tried to locate the other hiding places. We watched everywere for the telltale traces of pine needles and tinsel. When a catch was located, a raid would be planned, usually at night.

Most of us were fairly familiar with the backyards and basements through endless games of kick-wicket, ring -o- leavo (or something that sounds like that), hare-and-hounds, etc., with friends around town. Irate fathers lacked this advantage and found it unwise to give chase, On one occasion of a snatch form a hallway in the Flats papa came bellowin after us and was laid out by a low-hanging wire clothesline. When he was able to breathe again we were gone.

I do not recall any real violence between members of opposing gangs. The strategy was to move in quietly and if a cache proved to hundred, we hoped that surprise would permit some of the trees to be carried of. If the opposition was to strong we retreated. After all, we were stealing form our friends. In fleeing from an unsuccessful raid on Morgan Avenue, one of our unfamiliar with the area ran first into a wall and was captured and left tied hand foot in a driveway. Half and hour’s wiggled stretched the rope and the prisoner went home chagrined but unharmed.

Some of the younger members of our gang worked out a that we thought was especially cleaver. That it was also thoroughly dishonest and unfair was not considered. Knowing that the Empire Street gang had trees stored in the Ridge family’s garage, we proceeded over there after supper and suggested to the Empire Street guards that we make a joint raid on a cache on Amador Road. They unwisely decided to leave their own trees unguarded whiled on this expedition. When silently loping throughout the dark back yards of Empire Street, it was easy for our own group to double back and make off with their trees. Although not happy about it, our Empire Street friends were good sports and we never received the trouncing we deserved.

On the night we set for the burning the trees were brought to an open area the neighborhood. The older boys carefully built up the high pyre that was to make the spectacular blaze for which we had worked so hard. To have all burned the trees on at a time would have taken away much of the excitement of the evening. Not all of the trees went into the initial blaze but there were enough to satisfy everyone.

The completed pyre was surrounded by firelighters and fired at the base. As the flames roared upward through the dry trees, light spread until a pillar of flame shot higher than the roof tops and surrounded great trees. Then the entire neighborhood was illuminated. This was the moment of glory for young fire worshippers.

When the great blaze shrank back and lost its magic, all the children big enough to pick up a tree had the privilege of adding one to the fire. One by one the remaining trees were thrown into the flames and the dancing, leaping, and what was whooping around the fire began. When the fire at last sank down enough to be leaped over, the festivities were ended. This still seems a much more sensible secular celebration of the ending of one year and beginning of the next than the asinine behavior of many adults on New Years Eve.