Thursday, November 20, 2008


Caribbean Christmas Holidays - Part One
Written by Tropical Sky

This is the first in a series of blog articles where we celebrate a Caribbean Christmas by exploring Caribbean Christmas holiday food and culture.

Christmas is Christmas almost anywhere in the world nowadays.  The influence of American seasonal icons and traditions has “globalised” even this celebration.  But there are still some places where you get a really unique twist and flavour to Christmas.

The Caribbean is definitely one of them!
Food is a fantastically important part of the Caribbean Christmas holiday and many of the dishes you see are made only for Christmas.  These include fermented drinks such as sorrel and mauby, as well as the alcoholic drink rum punch. A special type of cake, called Black Cake or fruitcake, is also made with raisins and other dried fruit that are minced and soused in wine or spirits for several weeks! 

The main menu of a traditional Caribbean Christmas dinner includes baked poultry, roast beef, ham, boiled and steamed root vegetables, rice with peas, seasoned rice or rice pilaf, with sorrel, rum punch or mauby to follow.  This may sound very close to the traditional English Xmas fare, and that is undeniably the case thanks to the long history of the English as the colonial power in the Caribbean.
Another very English-inspired tradition is Carolling, although its practice has been declining in recent years. Small groups from churches or schools will walk through neighbourhoods singing Christmas carols or will drive from house to house to sing carols which might seem a little weird- singing about snow deep and crisp and even when the average temperature is around 75 degrees!

Two Christmas traditions that are unique to the Caribbean are the practice of Jonkonoo and having a grand market.  Jonkonoo is a group of masked revellers, often including stilt walkers, who parade through the streets dancing to the beats of drums, shaking tambourines and improvised instruments.  Grand market is a big outdoor market that takes place the week before Christmas, right up to Christmas Eve, alive with bustle with activity even after nightfall. It’s a special treat for kids to go with their parents to grand market during the Christmas season.
Even within the Caribbean itself, there are charming regional variations on celebrating Christmas.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Nine Mornings Festival runs for a full nine days before Christmas (excluding Sundays).  Celebrants have to get up very early in the morning and participate in church services, fetes, go to the beach and head into Kingstown where there are organised singing contests and other recitals.  In Jamaica, the Christmas spirit starts to set in from late October going into November.   Christmas carols are sung to a reggae beat and Jamaica too has its Christmas morning market and masked parades.   In Trinidad, Christmas is the time when the Spanish cultural influence really comes to the fore, making it really unique, especially amongst the English speaking Caribbean islands.

Each Caribbean nation has its own specialities. In Barbados, you’ll hear about jug-jug (a dish made from ham, guinea corn flour and peas). In Trinidad, it’s pastelles and ponche de crème while a  typical Vincentian Christmas dinner will have sorrel, ginger beer, ham, green peas, baked chicken, mutton (curried or stewed), beef, rice, pies, salads, and black cake.  This last delicacy is almost universal throughout the Caribbean.
Black cake is descended from British plum pudding (like calvados is descended from apple juice!)  and reflects the British presence in the Caribbean. The brown sugar, molasses and rum used in it are reminders that it was sugar that kept British in the islands and transported slaves who grew and harvested it in huge plantations.

Making black cake is expensive because raisins and prunes cost more there than mangoes and pineapples.  The fruit is soaked in rum for months, sometimes even years, then  baked just before Christmas and eaten at Christmas dinner and afterward, in thin slices, for as long as it lasts.  Guyanese cooks usually use Demerara dark rum.  Jamaicans use Appleton or Myers’s. Traditional English cakes were soaked in liquor (usually brandy) to preserve them on sea voyages. The black cake’s Caribbean character comes from the rum and its intensely dark colour.   To receive a whole home-baked black cake as a gift is a sign of great affection because everyone knows that it’s a lot of work.  You can only really properly make a just a few, so when you give a cake, it’s a special thing.

Like anywhere else, Christmas in the Caribbean is becoming more commercialised as time goes on,   but the people have still retained the warmth and goodwill of the season, even if Santa Claus and “snow–themes” seem ludicrously out of place, and it’s perhaps the flavour and warmth of the food and the people that makes the Caribbean Christmas holiday so unique and special.