CHRISTMAS IN THE CARIBBEAN
Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the one on whom Christianity was built. He was born in Bethlehem, became a popular and controversial teacher and miracle worker, died by crucifixion and miraculously rose from the grave. When Christians celebrate Christmas, they celebrate the coming of God to earth in human form to save mankind from sin and eternal death.
However, Christmas is widely celebrated by Christians and non-
In the Caribbean, people of all religions and some who observe no religion at all
become involved in Christmas activities. They include gift-
COMMON FEATURES OF CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION IN THE CARIBBEAN
The people of the Caribbean send Christmas cards to each other and to relatives and friends around the world. In colonial times and even beyond, those Christmas cards were imported from England and the United States and reflected conditions in these countries. One very noticeable feature was the “white Christmas” which was foreign to the Caribbean experience. Not many people in the Caribbean use such cards today. Increasingly, the pictures and text reflect Caribbean realities of warm sunshine and the masquerade, to mention just two of them.
As technology made it possible, people began calling one another at Christmas time. Most of the international calls are from America, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere to the Caribbean countries, though many calls originate in the Caribbean as well. Radio programs were once based on telephone greetings recorded and packaged as a program or even aired live on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.
Christmas music may be divided into three broad categories: religious, popular and folk.
Religious Christmas music comprises hymns and songs used in churches, and classical compositions by the likes of Bach and Handel. Some of the hymns and songs used in churches are those called Christmas carols. The more popular carols are staples sung and played from year to year. The media, especially radio, use them extensively at Christmastime. Such music is also performed in churches in regular worship services and in special performances such as cantatas. Church members also perform as carolers (carol singers) in public places.
Popular Christmas music are songs mainly about themes that are not Christian, but
have come to be associated with Christmas in the public mind. Rudolph the Red-
The folk music of Christmas tends to vary from territory to territory. However, the
music of the masquerade is evident almost everywhere. The instruments used to present
this music are mainly drums, flutes, rattles, tambourines, shack-
Much Christmas music gets played by the steel band. However, steel bands play all kinds of Christmas music and cannot be classified as belonging to any one in particular.
Other instruments used to render Christmas music are guitars and trumpets. However, any instrument could be used to make music at this festive time.
Christmas Radio and Television
Radio has always had a tremendous impact on Christmas in the Caribbean. The stations
always played a variety of Christmas music. Commercial houses, eager to advertise
their Christmas goods and services, have succeeded in getting radio and television
to start Christmas programming around mid-
Television has developed many home-
People send or take gifts to relatives, friends, business associates, and the needy at Christmastime. Children are specially favored. Toys, games and clothes are some of the favorite children's gifts. Most children were told in the old days that their gifts were brought by Father Christmas (now Santa Claus). Santa was supposed to have set out from the North Pole and to have come into the house down the chimney or down the wall or through a keyhole when the children were sleeping. Children were therefore encouraged to go to bed by midnight to make it easy for Santa to do his work in his own quiet way. He would leave his gifts in stockings, or on the bed (under the bed sheets).
At Christmastime, the people of the Caribbean go well beyond their usual hospitality.
Families prepare food, cakes and other goodies not only for themselves but for others
such as other families, friends, co-
Redecorating the home
Traditionally, at Christmastime the house gets a thorough going over. It is carefully cleaned. If it can be afforded, the house is painted, inside and possibly out. New curtains are also put up. It is the time for new furniture or at the very least to give old furniture new life. In some communities, polishing and varnishing of old furniture is still done, and as furniture must be at its best on Christmas morning, much of it is done on Christmas Eve. Those done earlier are likely to be covered with heavy cloths and unveiled on Christmas day.
One of the powerful factors influencing the enjoyment of Christmas is the basket
of magical memories of past Christmases. Christmas in the Caribbean was always associated
with certain sounds (Christmas music -
This is no doubt the reason why many persons from the Caribbean who live abroad prefer to go "home" for Christmas. It's not the same anywhere else.
Masquerade bands, performing and playing their special brand of music, are a common sight on the streets of towns and villages in the Caribbean at Christmastime . However, the masquerade band is not seen as often as before, and efforts have been made from time to time to revive the tradition.
The term masquerade comes from masque (mask). Masqueraders wear masks which are supposed to have some particular meaning or to achieve some particular effect.
The main performers in a masquerade band are the dancers and musicians. In addition to the face masks, the dancers almost always wear elaborate costumes . The costumed characters often seen are the Cow Head or Wild Cow (with prominent horns), the Horse Head, Policeman, the man on stilts, the Devil and various representations of women. Fabric, mesh, tinsel, mirrors and other items were used in getting up their colorful costumes.
The dancers interact with the crowds of onlookers. The Cow or Mule (who are really performers dressed to represent these animals) would rush among the crowds, and the crowd would scatter in mock fear, then come back again for some more fun. Small children may be genuinely terrified, but their fear is regarded as part of the game.
The dancers, whose attraction was their fancy steps, would go up to individuals prance around and do something special, trying to please everyone.
The musicians, generally also costumed, pressed many different kinds of instruments
into service, but drums and fifes (flutes) were dominant. They play kettle drums,
gumbay drums, bamboo flutes, metal flutes, banjos, guitars, graters, triangles, bottle-
During the performance one or more of the members of the band would approach those being entertained in order to collect money, sometimes food, sometimes liquor.
The spectators generally gave them encouragement. In Guyana, it is common to hear the lookers on shouting “Blow, man, blow.”
(a few notes).
It is traditional for Antiguans to eat pork on Christmas Day -
On Christmas Eve, everybody seems to be on Market Street doing Christmas shopping up to the last minute.
Antiguans and Barbudans have for a long time felt quite comfortable with the White Christmas images on their Christmas cards. They even went a stage further. In the past, people would fetch white sand from the beaches and cover their yards with it at Christmastime in order to simulate snow. The practice is not common now.
Apart from the activities everybody in the Caribbean gets involved in at Christmastime, in the Bahamas it’s Junkanoo! Junkanoo! Junkanoo! A carnival featuring parading bands in colorful costumes, singing, dancing, and decorations everywhere.
Christmas Plum Pudding
Christmas Day in Barbados is a day for feasting. Among the favorites of the day are
Plum pudding is made of currants, raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit – but no plums, as we use the term today. The pudding is steamed for three or more hours in a large saucepan with boiling water. It is then turned out into a heated serving dish, and warm brandy or rum is poured over it and set alight. The plum pudding is then served, often accompanied by butter rum sauce.
An Oxford dictionary definition of plum is “A dried grape or raisin as used for puddings, cakes, etc.” Dried plums (prunes) had been widely used throughout the Middle Ages, but later cooks began to use raisins. The name “plum pudding” just never changed.
At this time too, cut flowers of the Snow-
A few notes:
Belizeans are entertained by John Canoe bands with their costumed drummers, chanters and dancers.
The Christmas trees decorating homes come mainly from the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize.
A holiday favorite in Belize is a rum-
The annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, a bird census performed throughout the Americas, brings a number of birders to Belize at this time of year.
On Carriacou, a dependency of Grenada, a parang festival is held during the Christmas season. The Carriacou Parang Festival, first held in 1977, is held each year on the weekend before Christmas Day. Unlike the Parang Festival in neighboring Trinidad and Tobago, where the parang songs are sung in Spanish, at this festival songs are sung in English.
The instruments used by parang bands include the bass drum, iron, guitar, quarto,
violin, maracas (shack -
Christmas in Guyana has always been an almost magical time. Most of the features of Christmas are shared with the rest of the Caribbean.
Food and Drink
Food has always been one of the central features. Preparation started well before the day itself. Among the main items were black cake, ginger beer, imported apples, imported grapes, garlic pork, pepperpot, pickled onions, and ham. There was also a variety of sweets. Drinks included ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, sweet potato fly (a fly is a fermented drink), other kinds of fly, falernum, shandy, rum and wines, depending on the household.
In the old days, the “black cake” (a dense, dark fruit cake), was baked about two months before Christmas Day so that the portions to be sent to relatives in America, Canada, England and elsewhere could be mailed at least a month in advance. Cake from “home” was important to those abroad. To make sure that the cake would last, rum was an important part of the mix. For about three or four months before baking time, the fruit was ground and then placed in glass jars and soaked in rum for curing. Rum was added again after the cake was baked to keep it preserved for many months.
One of the chores involved in the preparation of the black cake was “washing the
butter.” In the old days, salted butter was a major ingredient. It was put in a large
container and water was added. Washing the butter was using a large spoon to beat
the butter against the water, by way of a stirring action, until the butter lost
most of its salt content to the water. For the young persons (most likely the boys)
who were called upon to “wash” the butter, the task seemed never-
Not everybody had an oven. Many people prepared their bread and cake and took them in baking pans to someone who had a large oven to have them baked for a fee.
For some Guyanese, part of the long-
About a week before Christmas Day, groups of singers, mainly from churches, would go out in the evening singing carols in public places. The grand finale came on Christmas Eve. When the wee hours of the day itself arrived, they sang all the more lustily. One of the old favorites was “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.” Caroling was enjoyed by many young people.
Inside the House
Christmas offered the opportunity for renewal within the home – the equivalent of
Christmas was the season of the masquerade bands. They emerged in all their glory.
The dancers and drummers were all colorfully dressed up in their costumes. The masks,
which gave the masquerade its name, were very evident. With the sound of the beating
drums and of the flute and other instruments, the various performers played their
part. One of them was Cow. Cow, the wood-
The masquerade band would move along the streets and roadways in its territory. The
performers would stop in front of a house, playing and dancing as the lead dancer
went into a yard and up the front stairs, dancing for the entertainment of the household.
After some dance-
A popular chant heard from time to time is:
Christmas come but once a year
And every man must have his share
Only poor Willy in the jail
Drinking sour ginger beer
(followed by “Blow man , blow”)
Many members of the band drank as they went along. Eventually, they would be too drunk or too tired to go on.
The masquerade in each Caribbean territory would have its own peculiar flavor.
Steel Band in the Street
In the 50s "tramping" behind the steel band of choice was popular at Christmastime. The popular bands at the time included The Invaders, Tripoli and QuoVadis. The practice gradually faded away.
Santa Claus (Father Christmas)
In the old days, children were led to believe that all the gifts which appeared on Christmas morning were brought by Father Christmas. Most children wanted to stay awake on the night of Christmas Eve because of all that was going on, and also because they wanted to see when Father Christmas came. However, they were practically forced to go to bed so that Father Christmas could be allowed to peacefully come through the keyhole, or however, and do his work – or, they were told, he might never come. Going to bed did not necessarily mean going to sleep, however. Children generally pretended to go to sleep, but in fact tried to peep into what was going on, until sleep finally overtook them. Increasingly, however, parents let their children know that they themselves provided the gifts.
The big stores (such as Fogarty’s) meantime began to provide Santa Clauses. In exchange for some payment by the parent, a child was able to go to the store Santa Claus, who would give him at least a hug and a gift.
Gifts for the Children
Gift buying has always been a wrenching business. Parents spent hours at the stores on Water Street, Camp Street and Regent Street in Georgetown. Further back in time, the shopping Mecca was Collier’s Penny Store at what came to be called Collier’s Corner, located at Camp and South Streets. In New Amsterdam, Berbice, the shopping center was Pitt Street. Guyana Stores on Water Street was also popular.
Among the toys bought for girls were dolls, cradles, doll houses, telephones, sewing
kits, kitchen equipment, ironing boards, irons and skipping ropes. Boys got guns,
cars, fire trucks, motor cycles, cowboy outfits, cricket or football gear, tool boxes
with tools, guitars and mouth organs. Both sexes got new clothes, games such as snakes-
Radio and the newspapers reflected the Christmas mood and activities. The Chronicle
Christmas Annual was a special year-
The radio stations played Christmas music, at first from the first day of December but, in later years, from November 16. On Christmas Day itself the stations at one time played serious religious music until about noon, then lightened up and played popular Christmas music of the likes of “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Some people went to church on Christmas morning. Others would have gone on Christmas Eve. Gifts, previously hidden, were then opened, generally with squeals of delight from the children. There was feasting on the Christmas goodies. A lot of visits were exchanged. Overseas telephone calls were made. Radios or recorded music was played loudly.
What Makes Christmas Unforgettable
A combination of things make Christmas unforgettable. The house was nearly new again. Among the new things were the Christmas gifts. The smells of new cloth, of wood polish and varnish, of fresh paint was still in the air. They mingled with the smells from the kitchen, the dining table and the pantry: pepper pot, garlic pork, you name it. The sounds in the air were laughter, music, horns, whistles, bells, popping toy guns, crying dolls.
The day after Christmas was also a holiday – an extension of Christmas Day. It was a day of continued feasting and fun. Even the very religious seemed to relax on that day. At one time, cinemas showed only cowboy films on Boxing Day.
Traditionally, a few days before Christmas, Haitians would cut pine branches to serve as Christmas trees or they would go to the market and get freshly cut trees brought from the mountains. They would then decorate them with bright ornaments. At the base of the Christmas tree they would add a fairly large nativity scene which could occupy a large part of the living room. They depicted a cave manger, with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men, and sculptured stable animals complete with hay.
On Christmas Eve, the children would place their shoes, nicely cleaned up and filled with straw, on the porch or under the Christmas tree. Papa Noel (Santa Claus) was expected to remove the straw and put his presents in and around the shoes. Christmas Day was a day of a lot of eating and drinking and singing and playing with the toys brought by Papa Noel. The children might also play with fireworks which they mostly made themselves from chemicals bought in the store. They consisted of little “bombs” which they set off as noisemakers. All houses in the neighborhood were open with all lights on until about three o'clock in the morning. Some people went to midnight mass. Others would go out in the neighborhood in groups, caroling. Parents generally gave their children complete freedom on this night and generally did not know or enquire where they went. The older children were in charge. Children of practically all ages were allowed to drink anisette on Christmas Eve. Anisette is a mild alcoholic beverage prepared by soaking "anise" leaves in rum and sweetening it with sugar.
Those who went to midnight mass would go back home to enjoy the meals of the "reveillon." The word "reveillon" is French for a Christmas or New Year's Eve supper and comes from the verb meaning 'to wake up." The occasion was however more a breakfast than a supper. It began very early in the morning and often lasted nearly till dawn.
The Christmas Market or Grand Market has been a glittering, and probably unique, tradition in Jamaica. It provided great holiday entertainment for children and parents alike.
In the past especially it had the flavor of a community fair beginning on Christmas Eve and culminating on Christmas Day. The event featured the sale of toys, craft and gift items, food, street dancing, and music.
There was always a crush of people at the site of the Christmas Market – vendors
selling a wide range of Christmas items, and everyone else turning up there to buy
them. Everyone was in fancy clothes, including colorful hats which were usually bought
on entering the market. The vendors sold small toys, gift items, firecrackers, twinkle-
Christmas Market came to be set up at the front doors of legitimate businesses in town, now closed for the holidays. People went there on foot. Parents and children would set out early Christmas morning, dressed in their “Christmas Best” clothing.
Stalls were decorated with streamers, large bells made of kite paper, and balloons of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
In the olden days at the Kingston Christmas Market children would ride the ferry to Port Royal or go to the Christmas morning concert at Ward Theatres.
See Seasons Come etc. from The Gleaner
(a few notes)
Many of the people of Montserrat have left the island since the volcanic eruptions that changed the face of their homeland.
However, the traditional fare at Christmastime is roast pig, goat water (stewed goat
meat), goat meat cooked on a wood fire, potato pudding, dooknah(?-
A number of celebrations converge around Christmas time. Apart from the house-
Christmas shopping is done on a crowded Parliament Street.
St. Kitts has a carnival over the Christmas holidays -
One of the Christmastime traditions in Saint Lucia is “bursting the bamboo.” From
late November one can hear the sounds of bamboo bursting during the night. Men in
the neighborhood use kerosene and rags and sticks as fuses to make cannons out of
There is also the Festival of Lights and Renewal, which begins December 13, and features
An interesting aspect of the Christmas season in St Vincent is the pre-
In Suriname, Christmas begins early. Children put out cookies and milk for Goedoe Pa (or Dearest Daddy) and his servants who would be busy delivering gifts throughout the country. Goedoe Pa is a black man and his servants are also black. He and his servants leave the children’s presents next to their shoes on the morning of December 6th, with poems attached to the gifts.
It was not always so. Before 1975, when Suriname was colony, Christmas traditions were the same as in the Netherlands. Then, it was St. Nicholas (also called Sinterklaas), an elderly white man, who arrived by ship on December 5th, the eve of his birthday. He rode a white horse and had a retinue of Black servants. Children left hay and carrots in their shoes for St. Nicholas' horse.
Surinamese celebrate Christmas Day and the following day, December 26th, called Tweede Kerstdag in festive fashion with parties, gifts, and ethnic Christmas dishes. During the two days, national holidays, Surinam’s offices, factories and schools are closed.
Families attend church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. After church, they enjoy opening gifts at home and there is a festive atmosphere during which friends visit and share the good things of the season throughout the day and into the next.
Parang music is an important part of Christmas in Trinidad. There is nothing quite like it in the rest of the Caribbean.
Parang groups (traditionally, four to six singers with their instruments, but now
more in number) go from house to house within communities playing and singing music
passed down from their Hispanic American ancestors. Their Christmas offerings include
lively folk carols heralding the birth of the Christ Child and relating the story
of the nativity. Parang was introduced into Trinidad, according to one theory, by
Spain’s Capuchin monks of the Order of St. Francis, somewhere between 1686 and 1689.
Another theory is that Trinidad Parang began in the nineteenth century whenVenezuelan
workers were imported to serve on the Cocoa estates during the Cocoa boom of 1870-
The aguinaldos recount the angel Gabriel’s prophecy to young Mary and the manzanares are about the celebrations after the child is born.
Initially, the instruments they used were the guitar, cuatro, mandolin, box base,
and maracas. Over the years, however, other instruments were pressed into service
Over the years parang was adapted to the social environment of the island, mainly by the native Amerindians and African slaves. Called La Parranda initially, it became parang. Significant numbers of parranderos are found mostly in Moruga, Santa Cruz, Valencia, Caura, Lopinot, Sangre Grande, Maraval, Siparia and Rio Claro.
Christmas music now also includes Parang Soca (introduced around 1978), a blend of soca music and parang;
Food and Drinks
Trinidad's Christmas cuisine include the usual Caribbean favorites, but also pastelles (cornmeal pasties filled with meat, olives, capers and raisins, steamed in banana leaves) and stewed pigeon peas. Ponche de crema (a kind of eggnog with added rum) is also very popular.