Christmas is a BIG deal in Jamaica. Some early birds started decorating their houses from as early as mid November and the stores started to put out their decorations about two weeks before that! The rest of us will probably get around to it about the second or third week in December. Our decorations are very similar to those in North America and Britain so you’ll find pine trees decorated with lights, wooden and glass decorations and yes – even fake snow! Many people decorate the outside of their houses with pepper lights and some dress the trees in their gardens with lights as well. It’s customary to find Christmas trees in the town centre or “Square” of many towns with a ceremonial lighting event.
Jamaicans still observe the British holidays of Christmas day and Boxing Day so the 25th and 26th of December are public holidays. Junkanoo is a long-standing Boxing Day Jamaican tradition when bands of marching and dancing costumed revellers parade through the streets, visiting towns and villages. The revellers, dressed in deliberately exaggerated, almost grotesque costumes are met with delight by adults and fear by unsuspecting children! Junkanoo has specific characters with specific symbolic meanings and this merry-making celebration of culture dates back to the time of slavery where it marked a continuation of traditions brought over from Africa. Unfortunately the tradition has almost died out in Jamaica, but we’re happy to see that some hotels are keeping it alive, as seen in this picture .
Christmas music is very much a part of our celebrations and the radio stations start belting out Christmas Carols and songs from as early as November. Christmas selections represent a blend of the traditional North American and British secular and religious music, interspersed with our own indigenous Christmas music. So as you walk though the malls you’ll shop to the backdrop of selections such as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Silent Night” and “Christmas a come, me want me lama (presents)”. Of course traditional songs are often made our own by setting them to the reggae beat, and our creative minds provide an amusing mix of adopted and local culture leading to creations such as “Santa ketch up eena Mango Tree” (Santa is stuck in a Mango Tree).
A large percentage of Jamaicans are of the Christian faith, and Carol Services and Christmas Plays are a popular form of celebrating the Season. Midnight and early Christmas morning Church services are popular, as they leave the rest of the day free for visiting with family and friends, and of course……eating!
Christmas Market is a distinct feature of the Jamaican Christmas. By early December, street vendors move into high gear, stocking up on the toys that children love, along with every imaginable gift item for the young and old. Christmas Eve marks the crescendo of the Christmas Market when every mall, market, town square and even the streets are packed solid with frenzied shoppers grabbing the last opportunity to pick up gifts – along with outfits for the season of course! Some patrons aren’t particularly buying, but they bring out their families just to mingle and be a part of the general Christmas fever and excitement.
And yes, Santa makes it to Jamaica too so don’t be surprised to find him at the malls taking requests. Various churches and organizations ensure that Santa also makes an appearance in Children’s Homes and hospitals etc. in the spirit of sharing and caring.
But now on to the highlight of Christmas – The FOOD! Needless to say, there is plenty of it! Serious cooks will start preparing for Christmas weeks in advance by soaking the fruit to make a rich (potent!) Christmas cake or pudding. The fruit is soaked in rum (Jamaican of course!) and wine so most cakes are quite ‘spirited’. A rum and butter sauce is an optional but equally potent topping for those who really want to get into the spirit of things. Baking takes place a few days before Christmas and a delightful aroma hangs in the air of many neighbourhoods. As they say, “the proof is in the eating of the pudding”, so every visitor who comes calling during the Season can expect to be offered a slice. Tradition has it that for good luck you should eat at least one slice from a different household for every month of the coming year. Yes, that’s a lot of visits and a lot of slices, but Christmas comes but once a year, so who’s complaining!
Ham and Turkey or Chicken are the centrepiece of many Christmas “dinners” (eaten mid-afternoon), and the really dedicated cooks will cure their own ham weeks in advance. The rest of the Christmas Day fare will include as many dishes as the cook has the energy for, and as the dining table has space for – rice and peas, macaroni and cheese, candied sweet potato, stuffing, vegetables, cornbread and the list goes on…… The beverage of choice is Jamaican Sorrel (it’s an unwritten rule!) and ginger beer with or without some rum for flavour (yes, there’s that rum again!) And for desert – you guessed it – generous portions of that Christmas pudding! Many families will pool resources and share the labour, each person bringing a dish and gathering at the family home of choice. Even with the division of labour, preparing for Christmas dinner and cleaning up is a lot of work, so we’re always happy to have Boxing Day to recover – though that may be the day for visiting other family members who live further afield, and friends.
And for those who want all the fare without the fuss, they can choose from a range of hotels and restaurants offering up a veritable yuletide feast – all the food, none of the washing up – it doewn’t get better than that! Of course before, during and after the eating, there’s sure to be lots of feting as house parties, office parties and street dances abound all across the island. So, there you have it – the A to Z on Christmas in J-a. Good music, good food, lots of family and friends. T’is definitely the season to be jolly, or as one of our local Christmas songs entreats:
“Mek de Christmas ketch you in a good mood, mek de Christmas ketch you feeling fine”
Translation: “Let Christmas find you in a good mood and feeling fine!”