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CARIBBEAN HOLIDAY TRADITIONS
by Lulu Basuil

All over the world, people get together with friends and family to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season. They exchange gifts, and invite one another to their homes for parties, lunches or dinners, signifying the trademark Christmas message of peace and goodwill. In the Caribbean, this message is no different, and whether they are based at home in the region or abroad, Caribbean people find a way to add their special touch to the festivities. Festivities among the various nationalities share similarities, but many also have unique celebrations.

However, Christmas is widely celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike as a holiday with non-religious aspects. Some of the secular activities associated with Christmas are quite charming and have become extremely popular all over the world.  Like anywhere else, Christmas is a high profit generating period for businesses. Caribbean people are known for their love of shopping, which is seen by some as one of the effects of the Americanization of Caribbean Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, Caribbean people have still retained the warmth and goodwill for the most part, although admittedly one does hear the traditional songs of American origin, such as Santa Claus and some “snow–themed” decors abound in homes and neighborhoods, none of which are indigenous in origin to the Caribbean!

In the Caribbean, people of all religions and some who observe no religion at all become involved in Christmas activities. These activities include gift-giving, feasting, Christmas cards, Christmas music, the masquerade in its various forms, and others.  Among the islands, there is a definite commonality to some components of the Christmas celebration – particularly the all present feasts of fabulous local food and both local and regional music.
Christmas TreeGenerally, music plays a huge role in making Christmas, well, Christmas. Throughout the region, one can hear traditional carols, many of which originate from America. However, in Jamaica, Christmas carols are sung to a reggae beat. In Trinidad and Tobago, Christmas music belies the country’s Spanish heritage with Parang, indigenous music that has Latin rhythms and is sung in Spanish, filling the airwaves. Soca parang is also another spinoff from the Parang genre, with an extensive playlist in existence.

The cuisine at this time of year makes for a great feast. For instance, a typical Vincentian Christmas dinner will have sorrel, ginger beer, ham, green peas (if one can afford the going price), baked chicken, mutton (curried or stewed), beef, rice, pies, salads, and black cake (a rich, fruity, alcoholic concoction). Sorrel is a staple Christmas drink  throughout the Caribbean.
And, of course, Christmas is not Christmas without a bottle of locally made Black wine.

And, as this article describes, many islands have their own traditions and definitely ‘do their own thing.’

Christmas in Antigua and Barbuda

It is traditional for Antiguans to eat pork on Christmas Day - baked or stewed or corned. On the day after Christmas, which is known as Boxing Day, pepper pot is a big favorite. On Christmas Eve, everybody seems to be on Market Street doing Christmas shopping up to the last minute. Antiguans and Barbudans have for a long time felt quite comfortable with the White Christmas images on their Christmas cards. They even went a stage further. In the past, people would fetch white sand from the beaches and cover their yards with it at Christmastime in order to simulate snow. The practice is not common now. 

Christmas in the Bahamas

Apart from the activities everybody in the Caribbean gets involved in at Christmastime, in the Bahamas, it’s Junkanoo! Junkanoo! Junkanoo! A carnival featuring parading bands in colorful costumes, singing, dancing, and decorations everywhere.

Christmas in Barbados

Christmas Day in Barbados is a day for feasting. Among the favorites of the day are jug-jug (a dish made from ham, guinea corn flour and peas), green peas and rice, baked ham, roast turkey with its stuffing with gravy, roast pork with crackling and gravy, fish, pepper pot,  yam pie, candied sweet potatoes, plantain, conkies... and a lot more. There is also Christmas cake, cassava pone, and other desserts. Often, the last item is plum pudding or Christmas pudding. Plum pudding is made of currants, raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit – but no plums, as we use the term today. The pudding is steamed for three or more hours in a large saucepan with boiling water. It is then turned out into a heated serving dish, and warm brandy or rum is poured over it and set alight. The plum pudding is then served, often accompanied by butter rum sauce.

In Barbados, Christmas is a time for family, says Bajegirl:
The major town centers are all lit up and people drive around to admire each others’ decorations. It’s also a time for food and parties, late night shopping in Bridgetown begins and everywhere people are painting and cleaning their homes.

Christmas in Belize

Belizeans are entertained by John Canoe bands with their costumed drummers, chanters and dancers. The Christmas trees decorating homes come mainly from the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize. A holiday favorite in Belize is a rum-and-eggnog concoction called "rum popo". The annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, a bird census performed throughout the Americas, brings a number of birders to Belize at this time of year.

Christmas in Grenada

Parang is the popular type of music in Grenada during the Christmas season. Groups, not unlike the British waits, go around serenading in their neighborhoods. In Grenada there is the added attraction of steel pans, guitars, tambourines, bottles and spoons; anything to make warm and friendly music. On the island of Carriacou, there are Parang contests. The groups are judged on the composition as well as their rendition of the songs. The Carriacou Parang Festival, first held in 1977, is held each year on the weekend before Christmas Day. Unlike  the Parang Festival in neighboring Trinidad and Tobago, where the parang songs are sung in Spanish, at this festival songs are sung in English.   The instruments used by parang bands include the bass drum, iron, guitar, quarto, violin, maracas (shack - shack), mandolin, saxophone, tambourine. Songs use calypso-like themes.

During the Christmas season, the people concentrate on special food and drink - black fruit cake (baked and soaked, since October, with port wine and local Clarke's Court white rum), ham, rice and green pigeon peas, macaroni pie, baked stuff turkey; and locally made sorrel, ginger beer and the Clarke's Court white, dark, or red rum.

CHILDREN OF PRACTICALLY ALL AGES ARE ALLOWED TO DRINK ANISETTE ON CHRISTMAS EVE.

Christmas in Haiti

Traditionally, a few days before Christmas, Haitians will cut pine branches to serve as Christmas trees or  they will go to the market and get freshly cut trees brought from the mountains. They then decorate them with bright ornaments. On Christmas Eve, the children would place their shoes, nicely cleaned up and filled with straw, on the porch or under the Christmas tree. Papa Noel (Santa Claus) is expected to remove the straw and put his presents in and around the shoes. Christmas Day is a day of a lot of eating and drinking and singing and playing with the toys brought by Papa Noel. The children might also play with fireworks which they mostly make themselves from chemicals bought in the store. They consist of little “bombs” which are set off as noisemakers.  All houses in the neighborhood are open with all lights on until about three o'clock in the morning. Some people go to midnight mass and others go out in the neighborhood in groups, caroling. Children of practically all ages are allowed to drink anisette on Christmas Eve. Anisette is a mild alcoholic beverage prepared by soaking "anise" leaves in rum and sweetening it with sugar.

Christmas meal
Those who went to midnight mass would go back home to enjoy the meals of the "reveillon." The word "reveillon" is French for a Christmas or New Year's Eve supper and comes from the verb meaning 'to wake up." The occasion was however more a breakfast than a supper. It began very early in the morning and often lasted nearly till dawn.

Christmas in Jamaica

Christmas in Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean Sea, south of Cuba, has a distinctive tropical flavor ranging from the food to the Christmas carols.
Christmas carols in Jamaica are the same that are popular in other nations such as Jingle Bells, Oh Holy Night, Silent Night, etc. Of course, given the Jamaican love for Reggae, most Christmas carols can be found in their Reggae version. The traditional versions of the songs are also well known and loved and are heard on the popular stations from late November through Christmas Day.

Christmas dinner is usually a big feast for Jamaicans on Christmas Day. It includes rice and gungo peas, chicken, oxtail and curried goat.  The drink of choice for Jamaicans during the Christmas season is Sorrel. It's made from dried sorrel sepals (a meadow plant), cinnamon, cloves, sugar, orange peel and rum and is usually served over ice.
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Christmas activities in rural areas of Jamaica include a Jonkanoo celebration. Jonkanoo is a form of parade and festivities brought from Africa by the people who were taken to Jamaica as slaves. Not as popular in the cities as it was 20 to 30 years ago, Jonkanoo is still a big deal, especially in rural Jamaica.

We also have a few traditions like Christmas morning market, and Jonkonnu (a little like Ole Mas). The Christmas spirit starts to set in from late October going into November. Tourists from the more temperate areas love the Caribbean as a warm alternative to the winter season, but you might hear a few locals talk of it being “cool” or “cold”. This “cool” is a sure sign that Christmas is coming. The Christmas breeze starts with a cool wind from the North…

The Christmas Market or Grand Market has been a glittering, and probably unique, tradition in Jamaica. It provided great holiday entertainment for children and parents alike. In the past it especially had the flavor of a community fair beginning on Christmas Eve and culminating on Christmas Day. The event featured the sale of toys, craft and gift items, food, street dancing, and music. Old-time Christmas Market began coming together a few days before Christmas but was fully established by late Christmas Eve. Downtown Kingstown has the largest Christmas Market, but there are others in other areas of the island. One of the famous Christmas Markets is the Victoria Craft Market at the Ocean Hotel at the bottom of King Street.

Christmas in St Kitts and Nevis


St. Kitts has a carnival over the Christmas holidays - one huge party with music and dancing in the streets.   It features calypso, steel bands, the big drum and fife corps, masquerade and children’s dancing troupes, the Bull, Mocko Jumbies, clowns and string bands. Festive foods include black pudding, goat water, conchs, Johnny cakes, and roti. There are also competitions such as the Queen Show, the Calypso Monarch Competition and the Caribbean Talented Teen Competition.

Christmas in Saint Lucia

One of the Christmas time traditions in Saint Lucia is “bursting the bamboo.” From late November one can hear the sounds of bamboo bursting during the night. Men in the neighborhood use kerosene and rags and sticks as fuses to make cannons out of hollowed-out bamboo.  There is also the Festival of Lights and Renewal, which begins December 13, and  features a lantern-making competition and the decoration of towns and villages with lights.  The celebration honors the patron saint of light, St. Lucy, with a switching on of the Christmas lights and a lantern-making competition.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, the telltale signs that Christmas is coming are many: barrels from North America start rolling in, people start talking about plans to fly to Trinidad for bargain hunting, the nights get cooler and the days longer, carols play on the radio, stores begin to entice us with offers, banks and other financial institutions promote Christmas loans, the string bands begin to make their music on the streets of Kingstown, and the place just gets busier. It's a joyous time for the most part. It's very community-oriented with people still taking time out to spend time with neighbors. Lately, they have been lighting their homes in a big way - so much so that there are competitions for the best lit house. Other countries have similarly grand feasts, but each has its own specialty.

THE NINE MORNINGS FESTIVAL IS A MAJOR EVENT IN SV&G, STARTING NINE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

The Nine Mornings Festival is a major event in SV&G. Starting nine days before Christmas (excluding Sundays), all get up in the wee hours of the morning and participate in church services, fetes, go to the beach and/or head into Kingstown where there are organized competitions in the form of singing, recitals, and other fun competitions. There is also a carol competition hosted by the National Broadcasting Corporation that attracts thousands. The format is such that you sing a traditional song and then do your own creation to the tune of any popular song. There are also string bands playing music on the streets, Police bands playing music in communities throughout the island, community singing and the lighting of the Christmas tree. However, serenading is a dying art.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago

In Trinidad, Christmas is the time when the Spanish cultural influences really come to the fore.  When Santa Claus arrives in Trinidad and Tobago, it's to the rhythm of soca parang. The climate is warm and flowers are in bloom which makes for a colorful season. Parang music is an important part of Christmas in Trinidad. There is nothing quite like it in the rest of the Caribbean.  Parang groups (traditionally, four to six singers with their instruments, but now more in number) go from house to house within communities playing and singing music passed down from their Hispanic American ancestors. Parang was introduced into Trinidad, according to one theory, by Spain’s Capuchin monks of the Order of St. Francis, somewhere between 1686 and 1689.  The paranderos (as parang performers are called) show up at a house and would  sing and keep on singing until the household recognizes them. They may start by singing songs for the 'opening of doors', such as Serenal or Pasen Pasen. The household would generally invite them in for refreshments.
Christmas cake
Trinidad's Christmas cuisine include the usual Caribbean favorites, but also pastelles (cornmeal pastries filled with meat, olives, capers and raisins, steamed in banana leaves) and stewed pigeon peas. Ponche de crema (a kind of eggnog with added rum) is also very popular. Christmas dinner may consist of turkey, ham, pork, pastels (a beef-filled pastry), pigeon peas, and rice. Dessert is the popular black cake of which the main ingredient is fruit that has been soaked in Caribbean rum for several weeks (longer for some recipes). Additional rum is poured over the cake after it has been baked. The Christmas beverage in this warm climate is ginger beer, Carib beer, or sorrel drink. The Christmas season is a natural lead in to the Carnival season which culminates on the Monday and Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday.

Christmas in Mexico

"La Posadas," the remarkable buildup to Christmas Eve, is perhaps the most delightful and unique Mexican tradition. Beginning December 16th, it commemorates the events in the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After dark, each night of the "Posada," a procession begins led by two children. The children carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. Other members of the company, all with lighted long slender candles, sing the "Litany of the Virgin" as they approach the door of the house assigned to the first "Posada." Together they chant an old traditional song and awaken the master of the house to ask lodging for Mary. Those within the house threaten the company with beatings unless they move on. Again, the company pleads for admittance. When the owner of the house finally learns who his guests are, he jubilantly throws open the doors and bids them welcome. All kneel around the manger scene or "Nacimiento" and offer songs of welcome, Ave Marias and a prayer.

Then it's time of the "Pinata," refreshments and dancing. The "Pinata" is a pottery (or paper) container, brightly decorated and filled with candy and toys. It is hung from the ceiling or a tree. One by one, the children are blindfolded, turned around and instructed to strike the Pinata with a stick. Usually several attempts are made before the container is broken. Of course, when that happens, there is an explosion of goodies and a scattering of children.

At midnight the birth of Christ is announced with fireworks, ringing bells and blowing whistles. Devout worshipers surge into churches to attend the famous "Misa de Gallo" or "Mass of the Rooster." Following Mass, families return home for a tremendous dinner of traditional Mexican foods. The dishes vary with the different regions. However, somewhat common are the "tamales," rice, rellenos, "atole" (a sweet traditional drink) and "menudo," which is said to be more sobering than strong coffee. Christmas Day has no special celebration though many have adopted the American style Christmas with a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.

Christmas in Venezuela

Globalization has not managed to stamp out Venezuela's most cherished holiday traditions. Throughout Venezuela, families make cherished versions of hallacas, a dish similar to Mexican tamales. Wrapped in plantain leaves, hallacas are composed of corn flour dough filled with chicken, beef or pork, olives, raisins, eggs and spices. The ritual can take days because many families make hundreds of hallacas to give to friends, co-workers and relatives. Each clan, each province, prides itself on its own version.

The Christmas season begins in Venezuela on December 16th when families bring out their pesebres and display them in the most prominent part of the living room. Venezuelan pesebres range from the usual depictions of the nativity scene to some rather unorthodox displays that combine modern-day electric trains, boats on the sea, and cartoon figures, along with the traditional shepherds, pilgrims, kings, and the Holy Family. On the Caribbean island of Margarita, a live nativity scene plays out every year in which a baby is taken to the creche display in a Christmas procession.

IN CARACAS, THE CAPITAL CITY, IT IS CUSTOMARY TO ROLLER-SKATE TO THIS CHURCH SERVICE

Venezuelans attend a daily early morning church service between December 16th and 24th called Misa de Aguinaldo. In Caracas, the capital city, it is customary to roller-skate to this church service and many neighborhoods close the streets to cars until 8 a.m. Before bedtime children tie one end of a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other end of the string out the window. The next morning, rollers katers give a tug to any string they see hanging down. After Mass everyone rushes home for tostados and coffee.

Christmas in Costa Rica

Bright, tropical flowers highlight decorations for the Christmas season in Costa Rica. Special trips are made to gather the wild orchids that bloom in the tropical jungle areas. The nativity scene known as pasito or portal is decorated with these brilliant flowers along with colorful fresh fruit. Some of these scenes are family projects that take weeks to set up and can fill up an entire room in the house. They are a tribute to creativity: not only does one see the figures of the Holy Family; people add small houses, all types of animals, shepherds, the Magi, and just about anything that will make their pasito unique.
Christmas candles
On Christmas Eve, everyone gets out their finest clothes and prepares for "Misa de Gallo" or Midnight Mass. Following the Mass the supper will include chicken and pork tamales that have been wrapped for cooking in plantain leaves, and accompanied by egg nog and rum punch.  Children used to leave their shoes out for Niño Dios, the Baby Jesus, to fill although he is gradually being displaced by the more commercial Santa Claus (called San Nicolás or Colacho)imported from North America.

The Christmas season continues through the rest of December and into January with fiestas, parades, rodeos, choral and dance festivals, street fairs, and bull runs. The highlights of these fiestas include a horseback parade, known as the tope, on December 26, and another parade featuring dance ensembles and floats along the main streets on December 27. It all comes to an end on Candlemas, February 2, when there are processions to honor the Virgin.

Christmas in Suriname

In Suriname, Christmas begins early. Children put out cookies and milk for Goedoe Pa (or Dearest Daddy) and his servants who would be busy delivering gifts throughout the country.  Goedoe Pa is a black man and his servants are also black. He and his servants leave the children’s presents next to their shoes on the morning of December 6th, with poems attached to the gifts. Surinamese celebrate Christmas Day and the following day, December 26th, called  Tweede Kerstdag in festive fashion with parties, gifts, and ethnic Christmas dishes. During the two days, national holidays, Surinam’s offices, factories and schools are closed.

Families attend church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. After church, they enjoy opening gifts at home and there is a festive atmosphere during which friends visit and share the good things of the season throughout the day and into the next. But whether one is celebrating in South America, Central America or the Caribbean there remains a  key commonality to Christmas in every country and that is that Caribbean Christmas is really about home, family and nurturing the important relationships in life.

Happy Holidays!

Author: Lulu Basuil is an environmentalist, avid diver, a lover of nature, and an educator by vocation. Born in Portugal, she considers herself a global citizen and spends as much time as possible traveling around the globe and writing of her travels and observations.

Email : Lulu Basuil
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Last Updated On : 23 Feb 2014