Memories of Christmas – Jamaican Style
The Christmas season is filled with tradition and customs which differs according to your country of origin. Some of these traditions are similar in all the countries where Christmas is celebrated while others are different.
I was born and raised on the sunny island of Jamaica, and I grew up with some wonderful traditions that are embedded deep in our society. I grew up in the rural part of Clarendon in a very humble household, but we celebrated Christmas each year in the manner in which we could afford.
Of course, Santa Clause was a part of the Christmas customs in Jamaica but as children we reconciled to the fact that he has never visited the poor and rural areas of Jamaica. We never find any gifts under our Christmas trees, if we could afford a Christmas tree, on Christmas morning.
As a child, in those days, I figured that Santa could not enter our house because we did not have a chimney. As a matter of fact, I used to wonder why Santa needed a chimney to enter the house because for us in Jamaica a chimney was the same as a potty or a toilet. Later I found out that the chimney was a tunnel from the roof of the house to the fireplace inside the house. It was meant to keep the house warm during the cold season in countries such as USA, Canada, and England. They were not necessary for the Caribbean so how would Santa enter our house?
I could not understand why Santa had to dress in so much thick clothing in our warm climate. Perhaps he was too hot and tired to do his rounds on our islands. But at school, the more wealthy children would boast about the gifts that they received from Santa.
So this could only mean that that Santa was either bias or the children from the poor areas of the society were all naughty so we did not deserve a gift.
As a young child, I could not understand these things, and I remembered feeling heartbroken every Christmas morning when I got up early only to find that Santa once again had not visited our household.
It was not until I was a teenager that I received the enlightening news from my brothers that there was no Santa Clause and all the stories about Santa riding on a sleigh with reindeer, elves and gifts were all fiction.
My three brothers were older than me, and they all migrated to the big city of Kingston to join the army. So when they returned home to visit, they came with many great ‘wisdom’ which they shared quite liberally. They also shared their knowledge about religion and politics.
They told me that the children who received gifts from Santa Clause were receiving gifts from their parents. Our family was too poor to afford gifts. But did this mean that we enjoyed Christmas any less? No! We had other wonderful traditions that made Christmas special for us.
Before daybreak on Christmas morning my mother would wake us very early to get ready for church. We spent the early hours of the morning in church celebrating the birth of Christ.
At the end of the service, we would join the Drum Corp as they marched around the entire community to cheer us with their music, songs, and dancing.
There were also Carolers on the road singing all the favorite Christmas hymns. During the day, the Jonkunnu orJankunoo parade would make their appearance scaring all the children with their frightening costumes.
The Jankunoo is a festive dancing that has its roots from West Africa and slavery. The participants would dress in masquerade costumes depicting the devil, pitchy patchy (torn pieces of brightly colored cloth), horse head, cow head, belly woman and African warriors.
They danced to the music of the drums, fifes and banjo that created excitement among the crowd of spectators. As the characters began their performance, all the children, and even adults would scream and try to flee as they playfully attacked the crowd with their whips, forks or horns. Even though it was scary, it was also packed with fun and laughter.
The parade would march around the village and climax at the local park filled with other entertainment activities such as roller coasters, games, and food. It was here that Santa would make his appearance to give out gifts to the children who were lucky to receive them due to the thick crowd. The small quiet town of Lionel Town would come alive on Christmas day.
The Drum Corp began the day, and we would follow their entire journey until they retired for the morning. Then we would return home to a house filled with the delicious aroma of baking and cooking.
The Jamaican Christmas cake or pudding is a vital part of the Christmas holiday. The cake contains spicy ingredients such as dried fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg, rum, wine and brown food coloring. My family did not have a gas or electric oven, so we baked our cake using the old rustic style called:
‘Hell a bottom, hell a top and hallelujah in the middle.’
Our oven consisted of a coal stove or car rim containing hot coals. A Dutch Pot containing the cake batter would sit on the grid over burning coals. More hot coals would scatter across an old piece of zinc, and this would be the cover for the Dutch Pot. The Cake that is baking in the middle is called ‘Hallelujah’, and the burning coals at the top and bottom of the cake are of course, hell. This method had to be done with precise technique to prevent the cake from burning.
Our family could not afford the ham and roast beef or the goat meat, but we were grateful to have chicken as this was a pleasant change from the usual chicken back.
Our Christmas drinks consisted of sorrel drink. Sorrel is a plant from the hibiscus family. When it matures, it produces a brightly colored red floret or fruit. These fruits are harvested, and the petals removed and steeped in hot water with ginger. The bright red juice is strained and cooled, and sugar is added.
The longer the sorrel drink ferments, the stronger it becomes. The sorrel can be dried and stored for use all year round. Most people plant sorrel seeds and the Gungo peas during the summer months so that they will be ready during the Christmas season.
During the days preceding Christmas day we would clean the yard and paint the house inside and outside. We would also paint the fence with whitewash which was a cheap paint solution made from slake lime and chalk. The wash can be used on any fencing material (our fence was made of barb wire and old zinc). The liquid produced a brilliant white colour when it was dried.
Our family did not decorate the home with store bought ornaments; The Christmas tree was also out of our financial reach. Instead, we made our decorations from colorful papers and placed them all around the house along with plastic flowers. Bright curtains also adorned the sparkling clean windows.
The floor of our homes was either wood or concrete stained with bright red polish. The homemade Coconut Brush was then used to brush the floor manually until it was brilliantly shining. On Christmas day, we received our guests with a sparkling clean house and yard.
In those days, Christmas was about togetherness, family, friends and church. Our life was simple, but it was happy and fulfilled. Those precious memories always brought a flood of warmth and comfort to me, and I am grateful for my childhood Christmas.
Every family in every society has their unique way of celebrating Christmas. Christmas traditions help to unite family and friends to bring comfort and happiness to each person. Christmas may be the only time of the year that you will be together as a family, and this may be the last Christmas that you spend with a family member who might later pass away.
It is, therefore, important that you have a family get together at the end of the year to give God thanks for His many blessings throughout the year and to ask Him for strength and wisdom to embrace another year.
For this reason, Christmas becomes the perfect time to celebrate family whether or not you are a Christian. Continue to enjoy your customs and heritage but try to avoid traditions that are shrouded in deceit. Myths and false teachings may have an adverse impact on the children.
Below I will share a song by one of Jamaica popular singer, Carlene Davis, ‘Santa do you ever come to the ghetto.’
The word ghetto is usually synonymous with rough and crime filled communities but in this song ghetto refers to the poor and deprived communities.
Please share with us your Christmas traditions.