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.
Christmas trees are everywhere; the plastic kind may dominate, but locally grown Blue Mountain pines are more elegant. Grown high up in the lush mountains, they are a softer, lighter alternative to the Norwegian pine. It is also traditional to decorate the home with bright red Poinsettias at Christmas. They’re so popular that it can be necessary to order them months in advance.
The long standing tradition of ‘Gran Market’ is one of the biggest days of the year for many Jamaicans – especially children. From Christmas Eve until Christmas morning, vendors gather to sell their wares at key locations around the country. Festivities continue through the night into the early hours of Christmas morning, keeping shoppers entertained. The best Gran Market in Jamaica is found in Linstead, St Catherine. It is a shoppers’ paradise, offering the opportunity to buy everything from last-minute gifts and Christmas decorations to clothing and food. Many people however, attend just to enjoy the party atmosphere.
The traditional masquerade party of ‘John Canoe’ or Jonkanoo is one of the highlights of ‘Gran Market.' It involves people dressing up and wearing masks while dancing though the streets to accompanying music. The Jonkanoo tradition came to Jamaica with slaves from Africa and was once popular across the island. Now it is more confined to the rural areas.
Christmas Day starts with a traditional Jamaican breakfast of favorites such as ackee and saltfish, mackerel rundown, breadfruit, bammy, pear (avocado), codfish fritters and boiled bananas. Families will normally then attend church. Mass is an important aspect of Christmas for most Jamaicans, who turn out in their ‘Sunday best’ for this special day. Christmas mass is a joyous celebration with enthusiastic carol singing and hand clapping. Steel drums and reggae versions of popular Christmas songs give an unmistakably Caribbean feel to the day.
Christmas dinner is a big event that brings family and friends together to celebrate. Roast turkey is notably absent from most Jamaican dinner tables and replaced with curried goat, roast chicken and the much-loved ham. Rice and peas take on a Christmas twist, being made with pigeon peas instead of red kidney beans. The food is accompanied by that seasonal favorite drink Sorrel – usually made with a generous portion of rum. The traditional dessert of rum-laden fruit cake finishes the meal.
Jamaican Christmas cake, a dark rich fruit cake is a must have. Raisins, currants, prunes and mixed peel used in the cake, are soaked in red wine and white rum for four to six months. When the cakes are done, they are ‘anointed’ with more spirits and served with a rich creamy rum-infused sauce.
Sorrel and Egg Nog are the Christmas drinks of choice. Sorrel drink is made from the unopened buds of the sorrel fruit, which belongs to the hibiscus family. The sorrel buds are boiled or steeped in hot water with ginger and pimento, strained and sweetened. While there is an alcohol-free, child-friendly version, for many, sorrel sans alcohol is not sorrel. Egg nog, a blended concoction of eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg, served over cracked ice, is a Christmas Day favorite.
Jamaica has retained the English tradition of Boxing Day, when excess food is boxed and delivered to the less fortunate. Charity aside, across Jamaica Boxing Day means family gatherings, parties and stage shows
On Boxing Day the National Pantomime yearly season opens; the inaugural panto was held on December 26th, 1941. This Christmas show is a celebration of Jamaican culture, folklore and history.