At this time of year, Jamaicans far-flung across the globe will share some common recollections and stories relating to unforgettable Christmas traditions that defined their childhood years. I grew up in the 70’s and this season was no less special for me. Hands down, Christmas was the most magical time of the year.
Today, many of the activities and products that existed then have either been replaced or amplified with more modern versions. Nevertheless, these 18 memories I’ll share in this post have remained with me. Maybe they will trigger some of your own Christmas nostalgia that you can share stories about with your children tonight.
Memory #1. Toys to Play With
Which child didn’t love Christmas when it was the only time of year he or she got toys? Here are the toys we loved:
- Blond-haired Barbie dolls with marble looking eyes that rolled and closed; or, if you were lucky to have family overseas and received what we called walkie-talkie dolls that cried. Whether they were skinny Barbie and Ken or cabbage patch dolls, it was all joy as we oohed and aahed over our presents every day. They became appendages we couldn’t put down. Cash-strapped parents didn’t stop our determination to have a doll at Christmas either, so when Santa didn’t send us any, we got very creative and with our mother’s help, turned perfume or bay rum bottles into dolls. We stitched up dresses from fabric scraps our seamstress mother had discarded from her client’s dresses; picked yard grass and stuck it into the top of our bottle doll’s neck, dressed her ‘hair’ with ribbons and snuggled down to nurture our own Made in Jamaica babies.
- Marbles, yo-yos- spinning gigs, and juice box trucks with Seville oranges or bottle corks for wheels kept the boys happy. They too made what they couldn’t buy.
- Balloons, fire-crackers, party- blowers (we called this fee-fee after the sound they made).
Jamaican children today play with iPads and Tablets. They like to play inside; our play was outside. But for me and my playmates, these simple joys were objects of our desires as children, and Christmas wasn’t complete unless we had them.
Memory #2. The Christmas weather/breeze
About midway through November, you would begin to feel it. A distinct shifting in the temperature, a mellow chill in the air. The breeze becomes more playful as though in anticipation of the Arrival. Whether you lived in the countryside or the city, it was noticeable to everyone – the cloudless sky, seemed bluer; sunsets were balmier and the sun warmer. Maybe because we saw it with children’s eyes, there seemed a certain magic and romance in the air, a special thrill that intensified as it got closer to Christmas and made everyone’s mood merry and bright. My mother would sound excited when she and the neighbour bantered across the fence asking: “Ms Mary, Yuh feel de Christmus breeze?”
“Christmas in the air.” is still a phrase commonly heard as Jamaicans welcome the approaching holidays.
Memory #3. Christmas Carol Parodies
In my days, society emphasised the religious meaning of Christmas significantly more than it did the commercial. So, the first Christmas carols I learnt were all traditional: “Go tell it on the mountain,” “Oh Holy Night,””Away in a Manger,” and “Star of Wonder.”These timeless Christmas hymns makes me nostalgic about those growing up years whenever I hear them play on radio now.
But there were the reggae cover versions of traditional Christmas carols as well that resonated with me. (As I’m writing this, I’m playing through playlists of these on YouTube.) They are still popular today.
Almost on cue, radio stations would start playing these from late November. Who doesn’t remember Neville Willoughby’s “It’s Christmas in Ja.”, or “Joy to the world” medley (reggae version) that we sang along to? And the hilarious parodies that are so part of our ability to laugh at ourselves, like The 12 days of Christmas or Yellowman’s Breadfruit roasting over an open fire? Here are some of the most popular ones:
- We wish you a Merry Christmas Album– a punchy medley of Christmas reggae songs in one album performed by the Ras Family, Don Carlos, Peter Broggs, Freddie McGregor, Michigan and Smiley, JC Lodge, Eeek-a-Mouse, Gleneice Spenser, and Pablo Blacks.
- Have a Joyful Irie Christmus in the Sun
- Santa Claus do you ever come to the ghetto? by Carlene Davis
- Santa ketch up in a mango tree– Faith D’Aguilar
And so many more I can’t mention now.
Memory #4. Christmas school concerts and plays
In rural Jamaica, the Christmas concert and play at the district’s all age school were the social event of the year in my district of Scarlet Hall, St Ann. People planned for it; the kids and teachers rehearsed for weeks and on the evening, usually the last day of school, parents and the whole community came out in their numbers to spectate and laugh at the drama of their children playing the Nativity Scene. As there was no other entertainment in the district, you could expect a bumper turn out from the entire neighbourhood.
Memory #5. Very Merry Christmas class parties
The planning, the anticipation before the big day, ogling all the delicious food you don’t get at home, envying the outfits of the popular girls in the class, the fashion show, dancing, whispering behind your hand at the brave girl dancing with the male teacher we all had a crush on, crashing other class parties, balloons, and decorations.
O-o-oh, those merry St Hilda’s high school days…
Memory #6. Christmas work
This initiative was local government- funded and allowed Councilors to undertake clean- up work in their communities in preparation for the Christmas holidays. For the unemployed -men and women- it was a welcomed way to get some Christmas money in their pockets and it was anticipated each year. By the middle of November, everyone would be asking when de Chrismus wuk a gi out (translation: the work will be given out). We never knew who gave out the work, but word got around fast. People were employed on the spot once they got wind of who in the community was holding the payroll bag. With the rising sun, the machete-armed neighbours came out and the community erupted in work sounds and busyness; street sweeping, verge weeding, tree-cutting and whitewashing began in earnest. Then it became like a party – the loud laughter, men fooling with the women and women shouting to each other, stopping to get water and going back to the Christmus wuk. Then it was raked and burned; they congregated on pay day, some cursing out the payer for shortening their earnings, arguing how many days and hours they worked. When the dust settled, Christmas came around, the community foliage had been cleared, streetside verges scraped low, boulders and pavements whitewashed and our street was sparkling clean and ready for visitors. All that.. for “Christmas deh come.”
Memory #7. Eeek! Jonkanoo!!!
Members of the traditional Jonkanoo band appeared at Christmas time back in the day. They are rarely seen today.
Oh (shivers) those oh-so-scary masked dancing figures were the worst of Christmas for children who encountered them. And unforgettable. Raggedy-dressed bands of men and one woman with drums, mouth organs, and other instruments sang and pranced through the streets of our little district and chased frightened, bawling children (me) hiding behind their mothers skirts all the way home and right up under their beds: Each band constituted a set of similar hideous characters: the clapping jackass head, the devil with the fork, belly ‘ooman’ and pitchy-patchy. That hideous creature that chased me still makes me shiver to this day. Jonkanoo band still make appearances today but mostly at cultural events. Jamaican children can breathe easy today when it comes around to Christmas.
Memory # 8. Festive Jamaican Christmas food
- Pre-Christmas Cake and Sorrel Preparations
In the markets, the red bulbs of the sorrel plant was another sign that Christmas was in the air. The rum-spiked punched from the sorrel plant remains a tradition of the Jamaican Christmas. As a child, it was made weeks before Christmas day, bottled and preserved using rice. The bottles for the adults were always made with rum, and we were told we couldn’t have any of those. Plenty was made, because Ms Adlin with the plenty children and old Ms Mc down the road who doan have Christmus dinner had to get their sorrel and a piece of cake. And so the food sharing and exchange went in my house and many houses in the district. Everyone had to have sorrel for Christmas, or as we say in Jamaica, “a no Christmas dat”. We still have sorrel today, not as plentiful as it once was, but an innovative manufacturer has found a way to extract its flavour and bottle it, so we now have sorrel drink all year round on supermarket shelves in Jamaica.
Memory # 9. Plummy Christmas Puddings and Spoon Licking
But soon it was the week before Christmas. Baking week.
- purchase raisins, currants, and Maraschino cherries for the Christmas cake.Check
- Make candied Seville orange peel. Check.
My oldest sister who had learnt Food and Nutrition in high school and my mother all pitched in to make candied peel from Seville oranges which were then added to the dried fruit marinating in red wine and stored high from the fingers of my thieving siblings. Boy, that sweet smell taunted us. My sister got tired of us asking, ‘When is baking time?’
Most people used the days before leading up to December 25 to get their cake baking done. Some finish baking earlier. But when it was that time, the sound of cake mixers made it known across the neighbourhood.
Child enjoying the cake mixing pan
Best memories of a Christmas baking spree in a Jamaican house on baking night?
- a chance to hold the keening mixer in the bowl while it curdled the butter and sugar (those days electrical appliances were really loud),
- lick the wooden spoon and the baking pan when the mixing bowl had been poured. Yum.
- sibling fights to get a share of the cake drippings.
Memory # 10. Spring cleaning in December
In Jamaican households to this day, Christmas season is when we do what North Americans call spring cleaning. New carpets, new bed linen, new curtains and new settees, and those who could afford it, new carpets. Crockery was taken out of the buffet, washed and dried ’til they sparkled and returned to their show-piece. Window panes were washed and rubbed with newspaper til they sparkled.
Whitewashed tree in back yard c 1965
Every house got a fresh coat of paint or lime. Curbs and garden stones were whitewashed, and even the coconut tree trunks were whitewashed for Christmas. Each family bought kerosene tins of lime from the man who operated the lime kiln, and whitewashed whatever could take a little brightening at the front of their yards. Rinse and repeat every December. Today, sprucing up for Christmas still holds a strong appeal for most Jamaican families, although tastes have turned to decorative paints and finishes. Christmas time continues to be the biggest sales period for paint retailers Berger and Sherwin Williams.
Poorer people swept their dirt yards clean of dust with their coconut bunker broom, red yoked their latrines, and wax polished their floors til it shone “like looking glass.” Tables received new plastic tablecloth.
Inside, the bed would be spread with my mother’s prized and prettiest chenille spread with the big rooster pattern in the centre that her brothers had brought her when they came from farm work in Canada. This prized sheet, which had graced the bed the previous Christmas Day and Boxing Day and packed away for the year, was taken out of storage in the wardrobe or dresser, washed and pressed and spread on the bed for the visitors who may pop in. A floor mat marked “Welcome” had to cover the floor at the entrance for the visitors when they came. This was essential to”take shame outa we eye,” my mother would explain. It was Christmas. Everyone’s yard had to look presentable. Poverty was never an excuse back then.
Memory #11. Grand Market
Grand market is the Jamaican equivalent of holiday shopping that comes to a head on Christmas Eve. It is the biggest vendors’ market, and vendors spilled onto every square inch of road side in town centres. Although the market started from in the morning, throngs of shoppers did their last minute shopping for gifts, clothing or groceries in the evenings which is when the parties also began. Many of us just window-shopped. Grand market is the day when the central bank report how many millions are trading hands. It’s a welcome boon for businesses who ensure they are stocked and have plenty of workers to restock all night long until shoppers call it quits at about 2 or 3 pm the next morning.
Even the village shopkeepers did brisk business. Little one room shops were often packed with those who couldn’t go to Grand market in distant towns or who just had enough to shop locally. Even with all the hands behind the counter, shopping in a rural shop on Christmas eve was a torture in those days in rural Jamaica. There were no cashier machines to expedite the process back then. cardboard and pencil were all the shopkeeper had.
Memory # 12. Street dances
Grand market was and still is the venue for Christmas street dances. The popular sound systems pile their huge sound boxes high on top each other on every corner in town; every district square. Live DJs mixed reggae songs for those in a party mood while vibing with the crowd. Grand Market is an all day event, but most Jamaicans come out for the evening shopping and partying that goes with this intense, thrilling event. For kids whose parents had not taken them anywhere all year, this was bonus entertainment that we waited for all year. Huge pots over open fire served up corn soup, mannish water. Ice cream bikers sold ice cream cones from their ice-cream boxes. Sweets, toys, noise. It was a celebration no one wanted to miss.
Memory #13. Christmas treats
Though not as plentiful as they are now, back in the day in my district, these mostly came from visiting tourists who came with beautiful Barbies and toy trucks and stuff our little eyes had never beheld except in books or on tv. These missions would come to the churches and distribute from there. However, the last treat I remember was, I’m sure, a culture shock, even for me as a rural child. As they tried to hand out the toys they had brought, the poor tourists were stampeded by hordes of children and parents and had to beat a hasty retreat to their bus, many of them suffering scrapes and cuts from the pillaging crowd that pushed and pulled to get the toys from them.
For the most part, though, these donation drives went well and made many children believe the man in the big red suit was jolly Santa Claus.
Barrels of gifts from relatives abroad are still a common Christmas sighting
Christmas barrels arrive from family abroad.
Memory #15. Christmas Houses
Christmas pepper lights on everything. We were just fascinated by them. We didn’t have Christmas trees, but we string them on windows and doors, inside the house and outside. The bushes and trees were not spared. Then as I got older, the Christmas houses started to appear like this one.
Christmas-loving residents often string their homes with lights
Christmas Day Arrives
Memory #16. Caroling by the Methodists and Baptists
Caroling on Christmas morning is not a tradition held by many families back home. But having your sleep sweetly interrupted during the wee hours of Christmas morning with voices under your window singing “O Holy Night” just added more happy butterflies to our stomachs, and gave us an opportunity to wake up early and start playing. After all, it was the day we had longed for: Christmas Day, the day when we’d have a cake feast, drink sorrel, eat ice cream cones, go to the beach (if our father was home) and show toys with the other kids in the neighbourhood.
Memory #17. Christmas Morning Duck Bread
No Christmas breakfast was complete without duck bread
Breakfast was the same for my entire childhood: I can’t recall what meat kind we got with it, if any, but duck bread and Best butter (not sure whether Best was a brand then, or it was just our judgement of the taste of that golden cream plastered over a chunk of still warm white bread) has been concreted into my earliest memory of the Christmas breakfast we looked forward to at Christmas. It was a tradition my mother carried from her own childhood Christmas. There was milo or chocolate tea (which funny enough, I couldn’t stand) to go with it. Some people had coconut milk to flavour their chocolate.
Memory #18. Christmas Feast for our faces
The only time we had so much food to eat was Christmas. Christmas dinner memories today are dominated by my mother’s whole roasted chicken which she stuffed with breadcrumbs and irish potato and baked in a pan like the white lady in the cookbook did.
In some homes, they had turkey- the very rich people, mostly. Other times, my mother would pick up a piece of beef roast from the meat market which she then stuffed and turned into pot roast.
Families and friends helping themselves to a Christmas feast on Christmas Day is a typical scene in Jamaica
In Jamaica, the Christmas Day feast is our version of the American Thanksgiving feast
If the district butcher had killed a goat, the mutton from this would be cut up and seasoned overnight and cooked down as a spicy stew mutton which Jamaicans know as curried goat. Curried goat is a dish that we acquaint with celebrations and festivities.
Rice with gungo peas is to Jamaican Christmas what turkey is to American Thanksgiving. Other times in the year, Jamaicans will pair their rice with red peas aka kidney beans. But for some reason at Christmas time, many people like to change it up and cook gungo peas which are bought still on the stalk at the municipal farmer’s market, taken home, shelled and cooked with rice.
And then just like that, after a bellyful of sheer happiness, it was done. Christmas Day then was the end of Christmas. We were always sad when the day ended, but the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging to a family and that all was right with the world lingered.
I didn’t know then that each experience would have etched itself so deeply in my memory and become so unforgettable that though I grew up, they had stayed with me.
What’s more, I look around me now, just days before Christmas Day. The world has tilted in ways that don’t feel so right anymore, and I’ve long gotten over dolls and balloons. But I can live with that as long as l still have these treasure chest of memories that grew up with me.
Seeing the looks on children’s faces because it’s Christmas and still being able to enjoy most of these traditions that have withstood the modern cultural invasion on my country will still secure me sweet dreams on Christmas Eve. Christmas, my dears, is still the most wonderful time of the year.
What is your favourite memory of Christmas from your childhood?
Feel free to add to the list to share your own favourite memories.