Christmas, as we know, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, on whom Christianity in its myriad forms was founded. Christ was, and remains for many, a revolutionary activist, miracle worker and teacher.
What we also know is that the season evokes a frenzy of activity and a flurry of events across many islands in the Caribbean, much of these based on traditions which are a culmination of various historical influences. Soca News looks at some of the region’s English-speaking countries and their celebration of this major religious festival.
Christmas in Antigua has been influenced by both African and Scottish traditions. These include costumed characters of old, like John Bull, who closely resembled Sensay dancers from Guinea, and the Highlanders, who would dance the Highland Fling in wire masks and cowhide whips. The contemporary countdown to Christmas begins when radio stations start playing seasonal music, and churches and schools host their annual bazaars. The capital city of St. John’s is usually ablaze with gay decoration and lighting in its numerous store fronts from weeks before.
Whilst Christmas Eve is taken up with late night last minute shopping and youngsters ‘liming’/hanging out, many Antiguans make time to attend midnight mass at any of the nation’s churches, where choirs also regale the congregations. Others attend morning mass on Christmas Day, before returning home to enjoy a seasonal spread. A typical breakfast on Christmas morning would include avocado, black pudding, bread, eggs, ham and souse (pickled and well seasoned pork). The day is very much an open house affair in Antigua, with family, friends and neighbours popping in to each others’ homes, exchanging gifts and sharing good times.
Once room is made for lunch, the feasting begins with all or any of the following: candied sweet potatoes, fruit salad, ham, rice and peas, roasted pork, roasted turkey, salad, stewed pork and traditional black fruit cake (made with fruits that’s been soaked in brandy/rum/wine for weeks).
Barbados offers a Christmas experience like no other, with many households opting to spruce up for the annual season. This will always involve a thorough cleaning, new curtains, and often repainting the exterior of one’s home. Whilst many Bajans will wait until after Independence Day (November 30) before putting up Christmas decorations, businesses in the capital of Bridgetown will have already begun animating the shopping experience with festive lights and trees. By mid-December, the Barbados Cancer Society Float Parade takes place on the streets of the capital and adds a carnivalesque air, with colourful costumes and decorated music trucks.
There is also the annual Carols by Candlelight produced by the island’s Rotary Club, held in the gardens of the Prime Minister’s residence. Like in many other countries, Christmas Eve is a popular night for church attendance – as is Christmas morning. A traditional outing after morning mass finds many Bajans and tourists walking over to the beautiful Queen’s Park to enjoy live music by the Barbados Police Force Band, as well as other cultural and musical entertainment, before going home to avail themselves of a great Christmas lunch.
Typical fare includes succulent chicken, ham, pork and turkey with Bajan style stuffing and sweet potato pie. Ask for some jug-jug’ to accompany your turkey; it’s made of guinea corn flour, ham and peas, and is thought to date back to the 17th century when homesick Scottish exiles tried to make a version of their national dish, haggis. A slice of Christmas black cake in all its rich moistness is an essential part of the dessert menu.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines a nine day pre-Christmas celebration takes place from 16-24 December. Known as Nine Mornings, it’s over 100 years old and is said to have emanated from the Catholic practice of a nine morning novena and mass attendance in the run up to Christmas, after which parishioners would go for a dip in the sea or parade through the streets. Today, Nine Mornings comprises early morning activities in the capital Kingstown; bicycle racing, carolling, drumming, parades, sea baths, steel pans and string band serenades are all part of it, with Bay Street coming alive at the still sleepy hour of 4am and providing lots of Vincentian food and drink for sampling. By 7am the lively j’ouvert gives way to an ordinary working day.
Trinidad and Tobago
Our last Caribbean Christmas stop over this season is Trinidad and Tobago, where the traditional music of the festive season is parang. One theory states that the music arrived in Trinidad in the 17th century via the Spanish Capuchin monks of the Order of St. Francis. Another claims its much later introduction in the 19th century, when Venezuelan workers were sent to the country to work on cocoa estates during that crop’s boom period.
Parang groups, made up of Paranderos, traditionally go from house to house playing music (bass box, cuatro, guitar, mandolin and maracas) and singing folk carols pertaining to the birth of the Christ child and the story of the Nativity. Aguinaldos are those songs which recount the angel Gabriel’s visit to young Mary with the news of the coming of the Christ, while Manzaneres are the story songs about celebrations after the Christ’s birth. Locations such as Caura, Lopinot, Maraval, Moruga, Santa Cruz, Sangre Grande and Rio Claro are parang hothouses during the Christmas season in Trinidad.
Paranderos are usually invited into homes and given Christmas food and drink in appreciation of their serenading. In the late 1970s, soca music was blended with parang to create parang soca, now extremely popular in both Trinidad and Tobago. Christmas cuisine includes deliciously prepared favourite dishes including pastelles, which are cornmeal patties filled with capers, olives, raisins and seasoned meat, steamed in banana leaves. Ponche de crema (a kind of eggnog with added rum) and sorrel are the must-have traditional Christmas drinks.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the customs and tastes of Christmas in a few of the Caribbean islands, where historical influences have been retained and given their own unique Yuletide textures and twists. While many of us lament the commercialisation of Christmas, there also remains an authentic spirit of this significant religious celebration and observation.