My childhood memories of Christmas in Jamaica are filled with images of men parading around in weird and frightening costumes and dolls purchased at the Christmas Market in downtown, Kingston. There wasn’t the commercial frenzy that I experience here in the US. We did not receive a lot of toys, apart from the mandatory doll or perhaps a toy truck for the boys. No Christmas tree in the living room although we did decorate the house with multi-coloured lights, no exchanging of gifts, no stockings hanging on the mantle piece because there were no fireplace or chimneys. Instead of snow we had a nice, cool breeze thanks to cold fronts blowing down from the north (North America, that is). Yet it was a fun and enjoyable time and Christmas still does not feel like Christmas anywhere else but in the land the Arawaks or Taino Indians, the original inhabitants, called the “Land of Wood and Water.”
I mostly enjoyed the feeling of excitement and festivity in the air especially as a teenager and old enough to go window shopping and see all the lights and store decorations with friends from church. Jamaica has a bad reputation of being a place of much violence with lots of gunment roaming around to scare the living daylights out of you and your loved ones but it was the one time of year I felt safe to be out on the streets late at night because the stores were open late and people were out milling around and having a good time. Christmas was one of the two occasions of the year when men dressed in their Sunday Best and accompanied their wives to church. The other being Easter of course and perhaps the occasional wedding or funeral. As much as I loved the wonder and anticipation of the day, I always marvel at how the day itself was so peaceful and quiet. Nobody was out on the streets on Christmas Day but everyone was busy in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner.
In our family we had a long standing tradition of alternating Christmas dinner between our house and my aunt’s house. If it was at our house one year, it would be at my aunt’s house the next year. That way each household would get a year off from the hustle and bustle of getting the usual dishes together. And we went all out for Christmas. Things we could not afford during the year would show up at the Christmas table. Roast Beef, Rice and Peas, vegetables, sorrel – a drink made with the red leaves of the sorrel plant soaked in ginger and red wine, and Christmas Pudding were the standard fare. Christmas Pudding was my favourite. My mouth waters now just thinking about it. Wherever dinner was being held, our house or at the cousins’, my grandmother was the official baker of the family and she was in charge of making the Pudding. I remember, she would start soaking her raisins and other dried fruits in wine early, from around October or November so they would be nice and ready to put in the batter. Oh how I loved to watch her stir the batter and delight as it turned brown from the liquid from the fruits. I didn’t really help. I just watched, waiting with glee for the moment she gave her consent for us kids to lick the batter of the spoon and from the mixing bowls. What heavenly bliss. My mother, God bless her heart, although she has done her own share of baking over the years cannot duplicate Granny’s Christmas Puddings. At least not to my liking. Unfortunately we no longer have her around to continue tantalizing our taste buds with her culinary magic. Ironically, a diabetic for years, she succumbed to the illness while baking wedding cakes for my cousin. I will eternally miss her. She was a colorful character in the lives of my siblings and cousins and mine.
Apart from the meal, one other tradition I recall from my very young childhood was rising early the morning of Christmas day to go to Christmas Market. Uncle Nick did not bring our presents and lay them under the tree for us. We had to go out and purchase our own, with our parents of course. Christmas Market was a joyful delight for any young child. It was held outdoors somewhere in the heart of downtown Kingston, our little capital. Vendors would spread their wares on the ground and we would walk around and make our selection, paid for dutifully by the purse-holders, our moms. I don’t remember getting anything else but a brown faced doll but I do seem to remember firetrucks and police cars for my brothers. Growing up, my mom worked at a department store making alterations to items that customers purchased, so there would be new clothes for us that she had laid away all year. Being a dressmaker she would also make new clothes for us as well.
Another Christmas ritual I recall is the parade of the “Jonkounous”. This was handed down to us by our African ancestors. Men dressed up in different characters and danced and pranced around to the joy and sometimes terror of young children. I say terror because some of these characters were hideous. There was always the pregnant woman, the bull(cow), the obeah-man (sorcerer) and other bizarre creatures. One year in Atlanta, when my daughter was no more than two years old, we attended the Caribbean Carnival Parade on Peachtree Street. That year they had the Jonkounous on their stilts and they scared the living daylights out my child. She clung to me so she would not see them go by.
All in all my memories of Christmas back home on my beloved island was that it was a delightful time of year for me year for me. No stress. Just a wonderful time to enjoy different activities, family time and of course the occasional beach trip. Since we were off school for the holidays, we sometimes went on a family outing to the beach around that time too. That in itself was a lot of fun too as there would be jukeboxes at the beach playing reggae music and we would have a blast frolicking in the water.
Like they say, there is no place like home and the best place to be around Christmas time is the land of wood and water also the land where the pretty girls come from.