The Caribbean diaspora remembers Christmas as they knew it

Dear Editor,


During the season, Caribbean people in North America reminisce about the enjoyment of the year-end season as they knew it. Christmas is thought to be a Christian celebration but it has become a kind of secular holiday signalling the end of the year. It is really celebrated by every religious group in the West Indies and America. A Caribbean Xmas included shopping for new items including clothing, blinds and decorations (lights, trimming) for the home; gift-giving; feasting; exchanging cards; charity; listening to music; watching the masquerade bands; going to the horse races; visiting friends and relatives, etc. The homes, businesses and neighbourhoods would be festooned with trimmings, balloons and other decorations.

In the Caribbean in times gone by, Christmas offered the opportunity for renewal within and around the home. Unlike in the US, preparation for the holiday started weeks before Xmas even among non-Christians and the poorest sections of society, as they were also deep into the celebration. People wanted their homes to look nice, so they remodelled the home; old curtains were taken down; a thorough cleaning took place and there was even re-painting; the yard was made clean as a whistle. And there could be new furniture. In some homes, the polishing and varnishing of old furniture and the floor were done. New cushions might be in place along with new spreads on the beds and new pillows to welcome the new season. The lawns were immaculately kept and tree trunks whitewashed. The Christmas tree would be up for those who could afford it, or a tropical tree in     the front yard would be lit up. In the past, few people could afford an Xmas tree or even decorations.

But as family members migrated and sent home remittances and/or decorations, more and more people began putting up a tree and decorating their homes with fancy lights. And the shopping districts were   also well decorated but not as elaborately as in some of the busiest areas in NY.

As in North America, there was seasonal music in the Caribbean, the same songs as were heard in North America although there were local ones as well. Businesses advertised their Christmas goods and services early and as such radio and television stations started Christmas programming much sooner than in North America ‒ around late November. The radios also played special local folk music (including calypso and parang in Trinidad) which tended to vary from territory to territory. There were masquerade bands performing their special brand of music on special instruments, accompanied by colourful costumed characters dancing.

The masquerade band would move along the streets and roadways and into peoples’ yards dancing for the entertainment of onlookers and the household. They would hold out their hats to spectators for their reward. Steel bands also played all kinds of Christmas music. There were also moko jumbie dancers and parang (a form of Spanish Christmas music with vocalists) bands (in Trinidad) in colourful costumes, singing and dancing soliciting donations. Christmas music was also performed in churches with members doing fundraising for church programmes. Students sang carols in schools and in the churches.

Christmas was a time for baking. People soaked fruits months before to make black cake. They also baked bread and pastries. The children looked forward to helping with baking.

The season is associated with giving gifts ‒ to relatives, friends, business associates, children, and the needy. Children were told that their gifts were brought by Father Christmas and that they should hang socks. They were encouraged to go to bed by midnight and pledged never to be bad again so Santa could bring them gifts. Christmas gifts (non-electronic) were usually opened in the morning, generally with squeals of delight from the children.

One did not need an invitation to visit a family for lunch or dinner, especially in Trinidad as my experience found. It is traditional for families to expect uninvited visitors some of whom may be complete strangers. Well dressed, people go around visiting neighbours and relatives to partake in the feasts. Among t he main items served were black cake, ginger beer, apples, grapes, walnuts, dates, etc. At one time, apples and grapes were only available during Christmastime.

A variety of sweets and drinks including ginger beer, sorrel, cydrax, peardrax, mauby, sherry wine, and hard liquor were also served with the traditional curried goat, duck, mutton, chicken, dhal puri, etc.

The holiday season extended over to Boxing Day. And the celebration continued with more of the same and repeated itself for Old Year and New Year. It was a simple celebration. But it was fantastic with memories to treasure!

Merry Christmas all!


Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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