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Caribbean: Christmas Traditions

All over the world, people get together with friends and family to celebrate Christmas. They exchange gifts, and invite one another to their homes for parties, lunches or dinners, signifying the trademark Christmas message of peace and goodwill. In the Caribbean, this message is no different, and whether they’re based at home in the region or abroad, Caribbean people find a way to add their special touch to the festivities. Speaking with Caribbean bloggers, Francis Wade, Geoffrey Philp, Afrobella, Abeni, Bajegirl, and TriniGourmet, I get the sense that the festivities among the various nationalities share similarities, but also have unique celebrations.

For example, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, there is the Nine Mornings Festival. Abeni explains:

For nine days before Christmas (excluding Sundays), we get up in the wee hours of the morning and participate in church services, fetes, go to the beach and/or head into Kingstown where there are organised competitions in the form of singing, recitals, and other fun competitions. There is also a carol competition hosted by the National Broadcasting Corporation that attracts thousands. The format is such that you sing a traditional song and then do your own creation to the tune of any popular song. There are also string bands playing music on the streets, Police bands playing music in communities throughout the island, community singing and the lighting of the Christmas tree. However, serenading is dying though.

Generally, music plays a huge role in making Christmas, well, Christmas. Throughout the region, one can hear traditional carols, many of which originate from America. However, in Jamaica, Christmas carols are sung to a reggae beat. In Trinidad and Tobago, Christmas music belies the country’s Spanish heritage with Parang, indigenous music that has Latin rhythms and is sung in Spanish, filling the airwaves. Soca parang is also another spinoff from the Parang genre, with an extensive playlist in existence.

“In Trinidad, Christmas is the time when the Spanish cultural influences really come to the fore,” says Trinigourmet:

Through the traditional tunes (parang) or foods (pastelles), several of the Spanish influences help to make a Trini Christmas unique, especially amongst the English speaking Caribbean islands.

The cuisine at this time of year makes for a great feast. A typical Vincentian Christmas dinner will have sorrel, ginger beer, ham, green peas (if one can afford the going price), baked chicken, mutton (curried or stewed), beef, rice, pies, salads, and black cake (a rich, fruity, alcoholic concoction). Sorrel is a staple Christmas drink throughout the Caribbean. And according to Abeni, “Christmas is not Christmas without a bottle of locally made Black wine”.

Other countries have similarly grand feasts, but each has its own specialty. In Barbados, you’ll hear about jug-jug (a dish made from ham, guinea corn flour and peas). In Trinidad, pastelles and ponche de crème.

As expected, Christmas is a time of excitement with increased social events and parties.
“In Jamaica, people say it’s our Carnival,” says Francis Wade:

We also have a few traditions like Christmas morning market, and Jonkonnu (a little like Ole Mas). The Christmas spirit starts to set in from late October going into November. Tourists from the more temperate areas love the Caribbean as a warm alternative to the winter season, but you might hear a few locals talk of it being “cool” or “cold”. This “cool” is a sure sign that Christmas is coming. The Christmas breeze starts with a cool wind from the North…

Abeni agrees, describing the nights as getting “cooler”, with longer days. Bajegirl notices “a special breeze that blows at this time of year, but for sure the nights get a lot cooler”.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, Abeni shares the telltale signs that Christmas is coming:

Barrels from North America start rolling in, people start talking about plans to fly to Trinidad for bargain hunting, the nights get cooler and the days longer, carols play on the radio, stores begin to entice us with offers, banks and other financial institutions promote Christmas loans, the string bands begin to make their music on the streets of Kingstown, and the place just gets busier. It's a joyous time for the most part. It's very community-oriented with people still taking time out to spend time with neighbours. Lately, we have been lighting up our homes in a big way – so much so that there are competitions for the best lit house.

In Barbados, Christmas is a time for family, says Bajegirl:

The major town centres are all lit up and people drive around to admire each others’ decorations. It’s also a time for food and parties, with popular dishes such as jug-jug, sweet potato pie and ham on all menus. Late night shopping in Bridgetown begins and everywhere people are painting and cleaning their homes. The thing is we try to be patriotic and wait till December 1, since our Independence Day is November 30th, but the stores put up their Christmas decorations mid-November, and carols begin playing around that time too, so you can never begin sprucing up your home early enough.

Jamaican Francis Wade says that a key part of a Caribbean Christmas is that members of the diaspora “come back to visit and spend time, so the social scene is quite active.” After living abroad himself for nearly twenty years, he feels that in the US there is less of a connection between people who aren’t family, and that the social side of the Christmas festivities is small compared to the Caribbean.

Like anywhere else, Christmas is a high profit generating period for businesses. Caribbean people are known for their love of shopping, which is seen by some as one of the effects of the Americanisation of Caribbean Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, Abeni feels that “we have still retained the warmth and goodwill for the most part”, but Trinigourmet notes that in addition to the traditional songs of American origin, there are Santa Claus and “snow–themed” decors, which are “definitely not indigenous in origin”.

Caribbean-born bloggers (such as Geoffrey Philp) learn to integrate the culture of their adopted home with that of their homeland:

When I first came to America, I couldn't get into the Christmas spirit and I didn't know why. It wasn't that there wasn't any rum cake and sorrel or any of the traditional Jamaican dishes; it was the music. The feeling continued for a few more years until one year our church incorporated the song, “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy” and that did it for me. It finally felt like Christmas.

The Christmas feeling in my home is quite different from the Christmases I had in Jamaica. Home has become for me a metaphor for the important relationships in my life. So it doesn't matter where I am. As long as I am surrounded my wife, children and extended family, I am a happy man. That said, I will confess that I will always miss the hills that surround Mona Heights where I grew up and the physical aspects of being in Kingston when the cool Christmas breeze came tumbling down the hillsides.

According to Afrobella – a Trinidadian living in Miami – Christmas abroad isn’t nearly as festive:

I grew up in a big family, so when the season hit, it seemed like the air was filled with parang music and who wasn’t helping to paint the house or put up the Christmas tree had to help make pastelles, ponche de crème, or sorrel. Now I live with my American husband abroad, and we’re learning how to blend our traditions. My husband seems to enjoy traditional parang, like Daisy Voisin, but Americans don’t get the subtleties of Sprangalang’s “Bring Drinks,” for example. I enjoy my Christmases abroad a lot as well, but I definitely still believe that Trini Christmas is the best!

Her fellow Caribbean bloggers may or may not agree, but either way, Christmas in in the Caribbean is definitely special.

  • Esteban Agosto Reid

    Interesting comparative piece on Christmas in the various Caribbean islands.Enjoyed reading it!Nonetheless,the spiritual, religious, and festive elements of the season is being undermined and eclipsed by the intense nature of commercialization and consumerism.In essence,Christmas today is about consumption,consumption and more consumption.The season has become excessively materialist in terms of the orgy of consumption with everyone trying to out do each other at the various malls and shopping centers,and when the New Year rolls around a considerable number of individuals are in financial trouble/deepwater as a consequence of frivolous and unnecessary spending.Hopefully,there will be a retreat from the excessive commercialization, and the festive, spiritual, and religious aspects of the season regaining its prominience. RESPECT and have a IRIE XMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

  • abeni

    Oops, I meant shorter days and longer nights:)

  • Sonya Jackson

    Jonkonnu is more of a slave Halloween celebration. How can one celebrate Christmas in late October? In American, cooner face is a common word used for Halloween mask which originated from this celebration.

    The celebration was simular to that of a minstral show which was a mockery of the struggle of my ancestors who where ensalved.

  • will

    does anyone know any thing about east timors chrissy celebrations

  • http://mydeco.com/ christmas

    Family traditions abound during the Christmas season, and every family has a tradition that makes the holiday special.
    My site is about http://mydeco.com/christmas/decorations/

  • jack

    Parang, pastelles and all other things referred to as Spanish, are not. They are Venezuelan influences, coming from it’s Amerindian and African population. The culture of Spain does not include these things. It’s a common misconception that’s made.

  • Jenna Major

    I would expect that there are upbeat reggae-Christmas carols in the Caribbean. Bankruptcy Lawyer help San Antonio

  • Pingback: Holidaying it Up in Houston — The Healthy Voyager

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