Pure vibes and nice time! Christmas in Jamaica is about family, friends, food and fun.
And since we're mostly a Christian society, we do remember the reason for the season - celebrating Jesus' birth in church is a big part of every Jamaican Christmas.
Many of our Christmas traditions stem from the British part of our history, but as with most aspects of our culture, they have been flavoured by our African roots, and shaped by the passing years in the tropics. How else do you explain Christmas pudding made with rum? And reggae versions of Silent Night?
Sometime in November each year, the weather changes. We shake off October's wet weather, and a crisper breeze starts to blow - Christmas breeze, we call it. The anticipation for Christmas begins.
If ever there is a time that Jamaican families and friends gather, it's at Christmas time. Country will come to town and town come to country so families can celebrate Christmas together. On Christmas day, families meet for Christmas dinner, to attend church, or even go to the beach (no snow to shovel, so why not?).
Some families have elaborate gift exchanges, involving all family members, while some buy gifts only for the children, as Christmas in Jamaica is considered "pickney' (children) time. Santa Claus visits some homes, but not that many. He is seen more often at shopping centres, or at special events for children. It's a bit hot here for the reindeer, you see.
Jamaican Christmas comes with pepper lights, although less so now than in years past, as the electricity rates are so high! Those who can afford it will have Christmas trees (mostly artificial) and perhaps poinsettias. Fresh Christmas trees may be locally grown, or imported. Poinsettia bushes grow in many yards, but thousands of compact potted poinsettias are imported each year for the season. At this time of year, yellow is the predominant colour of the wildflowers all over the countryside.
Houses get fresh coats of paint, stones and tree trunks are whitewashed, new curtains are hung. Household furniture is acquired on hire-purchase to accomodate and impress visitors over the season. Quite often this is repossessed when Christmas is over, when the visitors have returned from whence they came.
Churches are decorated with lights, Christmas trees, poinsettias, Nativity scenes. Carol services, Christmas plays and concerts feature heavily during December. Some denominations (usually Anglican and Roman Catholic) have midnight masses on Christmas eve, or crack-of-dawn services on Christmas day. Some have services later in the day.
We sing traditional English carols, interspersed with Jamaican and Caribbean Christmas songs, and contemporary Christmas music. O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, The First Nowell are a few of the well known and loved English carols.
Christmas in Jamaica is a time when people complain about their waistlines. So much food!
Ham, roast chicken and curried goat are Christmas favourites. Turkey may find its way onto the dinner table, but is not all that popular. Rice and peas, which we eat right throughout the year, takes on a twist at Christmas, when gungo (pigeon) peas are used instead of the usual red kidney beans. Soooo good.
Christmas cake (or pudding) is a British hand-me-down, in which we use fruits which have been soaked in wine or rum, usually for weeks or months in advance. People dropping by to visit friends during the holidays will expect to be offered even a small slice. And they'll expect some Jamaican sorrel too - our crimson coloured, delectably flavoured Christmas drink made from the sepals of the sorrel flower. We often add rum to that too.
Did I mention how easy it is to get drunk during a Jamaican Christmas? The cake alone can do it!
Christmas in Jamaica is non-stop party time. House parties, office parties, sound systems in the street, all-inclusive pay parties. You name it, we got it. Even the tinest watering hole or cook shop usually has some sort of celebration for its regulars. Even if it's just to serve a complimentary cup of mannish water (goat soup) and play some music while patrons "buy out the bar".
The ultimate Christmas party is "Grand Market", which happens on Christmas eve in most major towns. Young and old dress in the latest styles and head into town for a night of drinking, eating, dancing and fun in the streets. Children are allowed to stay up late and roam a bit more freely on Grand Market night. It may be hard to find space to walk, and in some towns motor vehicle traffic is restricted on that night.
Shops and market stalls open until late (or early next morning). Sound systems are on nearly every corner, and stalls filled with food, toys, clothes and gifts spill over into the road. The sound of firecrackers and noisemakers, the smoke of chicken being jerked, the cries of the cotton candy man with his tray of cotton candy on his head, the laughter and music everywhere - that's Grand Market night for me.
In the past, Christmas in Jamaica would feature Jonkunu bands (groups of costumed characters, dancing to fife and drum) wandering through the towns from house to house, terrifying both children and adults with their antics. The "horse head" character, with an actual animal skull for its head, would lunge out with its jaws open to snap at an enthralled but scared audience.
The Jonkunu bands would come in your yard and perform for a small contribution of money, food or drink. You could hear the drumming for hours, coming from miles away, and your heart would pound louder and louder as the drumming got closer and closer. The Jonkunu tradition has all but died, and is now mostly performed on stage at special cultural events.
On Boxing Day, the National Pantomime opens in Kingston. The huge (and infamous) dancehall stageshow, Sting, also takes place on the night of Boxing Day. The week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day is a constant round of parties, dances and open-houses. Not much work goes on as the festive season melts away into a brand new year. Christmas in Jamaica is a whole bag of fun!