La Villa de Los Santos  lives for its festivals. At other times, there’s little in the way of entertainment in this sleepy little town. The main party is the Festival de Corpus Christi. La Grita de La Villa, the town’s other nationally known event, is a more serious affair.
Festival de Corpus Christi is the biggest celebration in La Villa, drawing revelers from all over Panama. Though it’s celebrated elsewhere, no place can compete with La Villa. The festival lasts nearly two weeks and is quite a production.
Pope Urban IV sanctioned the Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) festival in A.D. 1264, though its origins go back even further. It is still celebrated throughout the Catholic world, with lots of local variation.
The festival officially commemorates the Eucharist, but in La Villa it is far more elaborate and far-reaching than that. By incorporating “pagan” dances into the celebration, Spanish colonial priests in Panama used the celebration both as a colorful way to attract converts and as a graphic lesson in the church’s views on good versus evil.
These dances are at the heart of the festival and have evolved through the years. Keeping them alive is practically the main industry of La Villa. The dances include El Gran Diablo, El Torito, Los Diablícos Sucios, La Montezuma Española, La Montezuma Cabezona, El Zacarundé, and several others.
Many of these seemingly have little or nothing to do with the Eucharist, the sacrament in which Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. El Zacarundé, for instance, remembers the African slaves who escaped from the Spanish in the Darién . La Montezuma Española is about the conquest of Mexico. El Torito involves a predawn search for a bull effigy whose significance I, for one, have never quite gotten a handle on.
The main story line that holds the two-week celebration together is the battle between the forces of evil, led by the Gran Diablo, against the forces of good, led by the Archangel Michael. The diabolical side of the struggle tends to get most attention and energy. Artisans compete to outdo each other in making the most frightening and horrendous devil masks for the dancers.
The two-week celebration always kicks off at noon on the first day with huge explosions and music and the appearance of a band of devils. They have a plot to terrorize the world and carve up the cosmos into four pieces they will then divvy up among themselves. Eventually, of course, the forces of good prevail.
The whole thing involves more than 100 dancers, actors, and musicians. The festivities take place up and down the streets of La Villa, in people’s homes, and inside the town church. At one point, the devils ask and receive permission from the Archangel Michael to enter the church, something that fascinates scholars.
By tradition, only men are allowed to perform. Though, in a mild concession to the excluded, there’s a día de la mujer (woman’s day) tacked on to the end of the celebration during which women are allowed to dance. In recent years a día del turismo (tourism day) has also been added to the end of the festivities. It compresses the highlights into a single day for those unable to get away for two weeks of partying.
The dates of the celebration vary considerably from year to year, since they’re based on several Catholic holy days. Generally it’s held sometime between late May and early July. Check with ATP for dates. The CEFATI tourist information center in Chitré  (Calle 19 de Octubre, tel. 974-4532, 8:30 A.M.–4:30 P.M. daily, including holidays)should also be able to provide information.
Every November 10 local and national dignitaries, often including the president of Panama, gather to reenact La Grita de La Villa, the town’s call for independence from Spain on November 10, 1821. This date is a national holiday. The ceremony starts in the morning at El Museo de La Nacionalidad , the house in La Villa where the historic letter was signed. It’s a pretty solemn occasion, but a parade and music performances have been added to the event through the years. Santeños love to party.