Christmas in the Caribbean is a most joyous time as on most islands there is plenty of partying, visiting and festivity. Particularly as the islands have retained many aspects of their ancestral heritage with African and European influences strongly reflected in their Christmas traditions. And like elsewhere in the world, Caribbean Christmas season’s activities are centered around family gatherings, with food and music playing a key role in the celebrations.
The decorating of Christmas trees is a fairly recent tradition adopted from North America that has become popular in the region. Some homeowners construct elaborate decorations with strings of light and holiday mementos setting the mood for the festivities. Santa Claus features frequently in the decorations and stand-in Santa’s play with children and gives out trinkets in popular shopping areas. The Caribbean Christmas has not escaped the commercialization of the season, and shopping is now a major part of the activities. On Christmas Eve, some islands host a traditional grand market when stores open until midnight and shoppers are entertained with Christmas carols and local music as they pick up last minute purchases.
The march of JonKanoo dancers was once a popular Christmas morning tradition in Jamaica where people would dress up in scary costumes and parade through the villages. The costumed dancers wore masks to depict the horse head man, the belly woman and rolling calf, creatures that would drive fear into some residents, especially small children. This custom has been replaced by street dances featuring popular reggae acts and sound systems.
Jonkanoo – Saxons Costume. Photo: ©Abbyolurin1.
In countries like Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean Christmas celebrations include Moko Jumbies or men on stilts who dress in colorful costumes and perform daring dance moves while perched several feet in the air atop the tall poles. Many of the dances they perform have their origins in Africa. Some islands like Montserrat and Saint Kitts full-blown festivals and carnivals with a packed calendar of musical and beauty competitions, fetes and parades from the middle of December through Christmas and the New Year.
Food is also an important part of Caribbean Christmas celebrations and this is the time of year when families usually gather for a big reunion meal. This is also the time when distant relatives are likely to meet each other for the first time over a drink of sorrel, a bright red flower steeped with ginger, and flavored with spices and rum. Sorrel drink is a Christmas favorite across the region including Jamaica, Trinidad, Montserrat, and Antigua.
The actual starters and main dishes for the Christmas dinner vary across most of the islands, but it is not uncommon for a whole goat or hog to be slaughtered on Christmas morning in preparation for the grand meal planned for that day. A Christmas dinner in the twin-island republic usually has black cake and sorrel joining ham, turkey, roast beef and macaroni pie.
St Kitts: Carnival Stilt Walkers. Photo: ©Flickr/Stormdog.
The preferred dessert is the Christmas cake, and depending on the island is known as black cake or simply fruitcake. Though the names differ, the cake is really only a slight variation of similar ingredients. It is essentially a rich fruit cake soaked with wine and rum, with browning, molasses or brown sugar used in varying amounts to add color.
Attendance at church is also an important part of the Caribbean Christmas celebrations and pews are usually filled to capacity this time of year. Caroling still takes places mainly in the rural areas in some islands where residents go around the community to wake their neighbors with the serenade of traditional Christmas songs.
Wherever you are in the Caribbean, West Indians are warm, friendly people and generally welcome visitors with open arms to join the celebrations, or even to dine with them for a holiday meal.