10 Must-Have Foods during the Jamaican Christmas Season
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Jamaican Traditions; Jamaican Christmas; Jamaican Culture; Jamaican People; Jamaican Foods
The temperature drops slightly as the ‘crismus breeze’ arrives in early December, marking the start of the season. Towns and cities create a festive atmosphere by decorating the streets and palm trees with brightly-colored Christmas lights known locally as ‘pepper lights.’ Houses in affluent neighborhoods compete to create the best light displays, and even local taxis are decorated. It is also traditional to decorate the home with bright red Poinsettias at Christmas. They’re so popular that it may be necessary to order them months in advance.
Christmas is one of the most important festivals on the Jamaican calendar. This is a time for family reunions and spending time with loved ones, and the foods Jamaicans eat at Christmas are a big part of this important celebration. There are many traditions and conventions to be respected when planning Christmas meals in Jamaica and expectations are high.
On Christmas day most of the Jamaican population get up early for exchange of gifts, to start dinner and Breakfast. After which everyone heads out to church to give thanks. After church people hustle home to finish up dinner, which is usually Roast Ham, Roast Chicken Curried Goat, Manish Wata, Rice and Peas, Potato Salad, Vegetables… Desserts consist of Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and a drink called Sorrel, usually highly flavored with over proof white rum and red label wine.
Nothing screams Christmas like a succulent ham, a time-honored tradition for Christmas dinner menus all over the world. For many Jamaicans, Christmas is not complete without a leg of roasted ham. Heavily seasoned and marinated, it goes into the oven early on Christmas morning and makes its grand entrance to the table dressed in an assortment of cherry and pineapple decorations. This is an expensive luxury in Jamaica that not every family will serve. The ham is usually the most popular item on the buffet table at Christmas parties.
2. Gungo Peas
For many Jamaicans, gungo peas are an essential part of the Christmas Day menu. Also known as pigeon peas, these come into season just in time for Christmas. Gungo peas are the desired peas for the traditional rice and peas dish, the gungo peas replacing the usual red beans. Many, especially those from rural backgrounds, will remember the traditional Gungo Peas Soup, a favorite appetizer before the main Christmas dinner, made with the bone of the Christmas ham.
The Sorrel Drink is also known as Red Tea, Roselle or Sudanese Tea. Made from the Jamaican sorrel plant, a member of the hibiscus family, which has its origin in Sudan, Africa. Most visitors to a Jamaican home at Christmas will expect a glass or two of Jamaican sorrel, often accompanied by a slice of Christmas cake. This delicious crimson colored Christmas drink, made from the sepals of the sorrel flower, is Jamaica’s own version of mulled wine. The plant is essentially stewed with ginger and spices, then sieved when cooled. White rum is often added at the end. Jamaicans make the refreshing beverage way in advance of Christmas Day; traditionally, stored in stainless steel, earthenware or enamel containers.
Everyone has a tale to tell about the "extra-spirited" batch of sorrel that loosened tongues and released inhibitions at Christmas time. However, no Jamaican Christmas dinner is truly complete without a glass of sorrel. The fruit bears just in time for the jolly season and Jamaicans have been known to imbibe on the "spiked" brew at this time of year.
4. Fruit Cake
Ah, the delights of a proper Christmas fruit cake, with rum and fruits! Not the B grade versions selling at your friendly neighborhood supermarket. You know the real thing, the kind that is so rich and succulent, the mere smell of it will send your mind reeling back to memories of Christmases Past.
To Jamaicans, the terms Christmas cake and Christmas pudding mean the same thing; a deliciously rich fruit cake. Packed with rum, it is a staple in most Jamaican homes throughout the festive season. It is customary to offer a piece to visitors who drop by during the holidays, and to eat a big slice on Christmas Day.
Many persons start ‘soaking’ the fruits – prunes, cherries, raisins, and currants – months in advance. In most families, baking Christmas cakes or puddings is a whole-day family activity. Young children wash mixing bowls or prepare baking utensils lined with grease paper, while older men cream the butter and sugar for the batter. Many Jamaicans give cakes as gifts or exchange them with neighbors.
Served warm, eggnog is a popular feature of breakfast on Christmas Day in many homes. The sweetened dairy-based beverage is made with whipped eggs, milk, cream, and sugar, and flavored with vanilla. For adults, rum or brandy is often added. Usually, eggnog is garnished with a little ground cinnamon or nutmeg.
The traditional drink of egg punch is usually prepared by Jamaican mothers before church on Christmas Day. This Jamaican version of eggnog is so popular it can be bought from supermarkets in cartons. One local variation includes the addition of Guinness Stout, lending a fortifying quality to this Christmas tradition.
6. Curry Goat
The curried goat meal is a must-have at any respectable Jamaican Christmas dinner. Curry goat is a staple for most Jamaican households on Christmas Day. Often curried on the bone, this spicy goat dish is usually served with rice and gungo peas. Nothing of the goat is wasted; the animal’s entrails will make a hearty soup called mannish water that is noted for its aphrodisiac properties.
“When I was growing up in Jamaica, Curry Goat was a special dish made for parties and celebrations. It wasn’t something you’d eat every day. Today, curry goat is still special in my house compared to Curry Chicken, which I make all the time. For those of you who have never tried it, it’s a must-have Jamaican recipe. When cooked right, you’ll find it more tender and flavorful than any beef stew you ever had.” Fay
7. Tossed Salad
This mixture of vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, provides a nice change from the traditional meat feast that is reserved for the festive season. The Best Tossed Salad is a healthy and refreshing side dish full of crisp fresh veggies! You can serve this easy side salad with everything from ham to Baked Chicken.
8. Macaroni and Cheese
Not even the Grinch himself could resist a huge dish of melted macaroni and cheese which brings credence to the adage that the family who eats macaroni and cheese together, stays together! The ultimate expression of Christmas love.
Macaroni and cheese—also called mac 'n' cheese in the United States, and macaroni cheese in the United Kingdom —is a dish of cooked macaroni pasta and a cheese sauce, most commonly cheddar. It can also incorporate other ingredients, such as breadcrumbs or meat. Traditional macaroni and cheese is a casserole baked in the oven; however, it may be prepared in a sauce pan on top of the stove or using a packaged mix.
Jamaicans love chicken. You can bake it, fry it, sautee it, stir-fry it, jerk it, barbecue it, barbi-fry it, Stroganoff it, Parmesan it...you get the drift. Just bring on a second serving of our favorite.
As popular as jerk chicken is, it is not necessarily expected at Christmas dinner, as it is a bit, well, common. You can get that every day of the year so why have it for such a special day? If it is served, you can be sure that your host has prepared it with some sort of special flair that is intended to impress you.