Judas Dolls - A Pacific Coast New Year Tradition

“Muñecos de año Viejo” (Dolls of the old year) or “Los Judas” (The Judas) are the life-size dolls that line the Panamerican highway from Chame to San Carlos each year, near the end of December. The often colorful and intricate dolls are part of a long-standing tradition to leave behind the negative sentiments of the past year.  On December 31, the dolls are stuffed full of fireworks. At the strike of midnight, they are set off flames to symbolize a fresh year free of the old, unwanted past.Making the dolls is a family tradition, which takes place primarily in the western part of the Province of Panama, specifically in the towns of Chame, Bejuco and San Carlos. The process of creating a Judas doll takes time and sometimes involves several families working together. Dolls are dressed in old clothes and stuffed with recycled materials. Many dolls take upwards of a month to construct. The most difficult part to get right is the face, as most Judas dolls are made to look like a popular figure.

Doll making is a deep tradition that has been upheld among families for generations. Behind each doll there is a story and a reason why the maker chose to depict the character created. As the coast develops with each passing year, fewer dolls are made.

In an effort to keep the tradition alive, local leaders will sometimes run a doll-making contest, covering the areas from Chame to San Carlos. The contest takes place near the end of the month and is often announced at the last moment. Participants are awarded points for creativity, family participation, and resemblance to the figure depicted. Prizes start at about $25 and go to upwards of $300.

Between December 22 and 28 judges travel the highway to take note of the dolls created that year. Winners are announced shortly after the 28th. . Once the competition is over, many of the families sell their Judas dolls for the fires of others.

Sold or unsold, all dolls are burned to herald in the new year. In Chame it is a community tradition for families to gather 1 minute before midnight to burn the dolls together. The families remain together until the last doll is burnt.