I remember Christmases in Jamaica as a child was usually spent with my grandparents in Westmoreland. At that time, we (my brother and I) would usually take the 3-hour scenic train ride from Kingston to Montpelier (Westmoreland); a ride we enjoyed as we admired and bought wares from vendors at the various stops. We would go downtown Sav-La-Mar to buy toys on Grand Market night. Toys which were our delight throughout the season. Our grandparents would give us new church clothes, which we would show off on Christmas Day at church. The simple pleasures of life delighted us then and still do. We still go to church on Christmas Day, but this year will be by internet and without my mother and grandparents. Life moves on. Enjoy your families this Christmas!
Jamaican Christmas Customs
Christmas in Jamaica features Gran’ Market, elaborate church services, parties with sumptuous food, community gatherings and warm interaction with friends and family. Every activity is significant with the sharing of gifts, the traditional Christmas pudding or cake, ham, sorrel, rum punch and eggnog, among other treats. Many Jamaicans cannot celebrate the season without adding Christmas lights to brighten freshly-painted houses, whitewashed fences, and trimmed hedges.
Anticipation heightens in September with the countdown to year-end. By late November, with Christmas breeze cooling the mornings and balmy evenings, anticipation gives way to frenzied activities as everyone gets ready. By then, store fronts decked with new stock to entice buyers and Christmas carols fill the airwaves. This is the Jamaican Christmas!
The celebration of Christmas in Jamaica dates back to the period of slavery in the 17th century, when the island was a colony of England. During that period, plantation work would stop from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day, every year. Plantation owners would give each of the slaves the annual gift of a piece of cloth and meat. For slaves, who usually had only the entrails and other leftover scraps of the animal, the treat of meat was a delight. What triggered even more merriment was the rare gift of wine the slaves received. The plantations then had all-night dances that included masqueraders and plenty of drumming. It is from these all-night dances that one of Jamaica’s most enduring Christmas traditions emerged — Jonkunnu.
Jonkonnu, a fusion of African masked dances and British folk plays, was prime street-side entertainment in Jamaica at Christmas. In colonial days, these bands would move from house to house, enjoying gifts of food and drinks or coins from the wealthy. One of the earliest descriptions of the masked dancers appeared in Edward Long’s History of Jamaica (1774). Long supposed that the Jonkonnu dance was named after a West African merchant known as “John Canoe” or “John Conny”, from Axim, West Guinea:
Gran’ Market is held in all major towns and cities across Jamaica, on Christmas Eve, and continues into the early hours of Christmas Day. As the name suggests, it is a “grand” affair which brings buyers and sellers together for last-minute shopping. This festive event involves vendors selling their wares on crowded streets. Streets that are closed to vehicular traffic but open to impromptu dancing, as there is usually music to which people can dance as they shop.
Christmas Carols and Carolling
In this Christmas tradition, community or church groups walk through rural neighborhoods early in the mornings leading up to Christmas Eve, singing Christmas carols. Traditionally, carollers used to receive a token of appreciation; however, carolling was and is its own reward, and a means of evangelism
Church services are held across denominations: communion services, candlelight ceremonies, concerts, all-night prayer meetings and the singing of Christmas carols. Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, while other Christian denominations have services on Christmas Day.
In capital towns across Jamaica, Parish Councils organise Christmas tree lighting events. This tradition involves the official “switching-on” of giant trees or tree-shaped structures in town squares that have been beautifully decorated. This is sometimes accompanied by firework displays, the singing of carols, delivery of Christmas messages from Local Government officials, and the distribution of gifts.
Christmas is the festive season for giving. Parents reward their children with the latest gadgets, and co-workers surprise their “office pixie” at Christmas parties. Most important is the giving of gifts and Christmas treats to the more vulnerable groups in communities and state-run institutions.
Christmas Food and Drink Sorrel
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, the drink is an integral part of Jamaican Christmas tradition. Jamaicans make the refreshing beverage way in advance of Christmas Day; traditionally, stored in stainless steel, earthenware or enamel containers.
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.
Christmas Fruit Cake
A “must have” for Christmas is fruit cake. 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.
Christmas Day Dinners
Christmas is a time of sharing; family and friends from near and far usually gather to share special Christmas meals. Many tables are laden with honey-glazed ham with pineapples, curried goat, roast beef, stewed pork, fried fish, and chicken dishes, accompanied by fresh salads and gungo peas and rice.
Boxing Day, which follows Christmas Day, got its name from the tradition of tradesmen receiving gifts in boxes (a “Christmas Box”) from their employers for a year’s work well done. Boxing Day is linked also to an older English tradition in which servants who had to keep working in their masters’ household throughout Christmas Day would visit their families, on the day after Christmas. The mistress of the house would give each servant a box with leftovers from the household’s Christmas Dinner and items of clothing from the annual pruning of the household’s wardrobes.
The New Year
A new year offers the opportunity to reflect and plan, and Jamaican folk customs suggest that there may be serious “seeing” into the future on the dawning of the year. One custom is to fill a glass with soapsuds on New Year’s morning and place it outside the door at noon, when the shape of its contents would dictate the destiny of the one who filled the glass. As far-fetched as this folklore might seem to the sceptics among us, Jamaica’s Christmas is most colorful and enjoyable of events!
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Jacqueline Cameron is an editor, writer and researcher with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief editor for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.