A Jamaican Christmas is a slightly chilly one (blame the Christmas breeze), unless of course you are in the parish of Manchester. Then it’s just darn cold. Even so, all over the island, no matter which walk of life you are from, no matter who you may encounter, there are certain customs (and food) that are simply a must at Christmas time. Keep in mind that not all are still prevalent in certain places in Jamaica as my experience has shown that our traditions are slowly dying out.
Enter any Jamaican household in the week leading up to Christmas and if you don’t find sorrel and ginger juice in a jug, bottle, cup, glass, mug or boiling on the stove then surely there must be the sorrel plant waiting to be prepared. Sorrel is a staple for this holiday and as soon as the Christmas breeze starts to blow, it is the norm to see multiple vendors selling the beautiful red or white sorrel plant in markets and on sidewalks all over the island. Let’s not forget the Christmas Carols. No matter where you go, you will hear one being sung or played, in between the Reggae, R&B, Hip Hop, Souls, Dance Hall, and many other music genres.
The John Canoe (Jonkonnu or Jonkanoo… same word, different spelling) is a dying tradition in Jamaica where men dress up in costumes to keep their identity secret, walk the streets in a parade and scare children. It is an old Christmas tradition dating from slavery days but it is a fun one… or so I’ve heard. The characters in the parade are usually Cow Head, Policeman, Horse Head, Wild Indian, Devil, Belly-woman, Pitchy-Patchy and sometimes a Bride and House Head who carried an image of a great house on his head.
Christmas Eve brings what is known as Grand Market (Gran’ Market), a day and night affair for everyone. Throughout the day, parents and children go out into the towns or shopping places in communities to purchase any last minute items. In each town and city a major section is blocked off so that no motor vehicle can obstruct the shoppers and vendors. The night brings out a wide array of individuals into the towns and cities to play (mostly the children and some young teens), shop, hang out with friends, eat, drink, party. Everyone is decked out in new clothes, shops are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights, tassels and trees with gifts, people joining in on street dances happening all over the place, vendors sitting or walking around selling toys, clothes, shoes, food and household items.
On this night you can walk from a street party into KFC to buy a bucket of chicken with your friends, then to a shop down the street to get that last minute gift, then to a vendor to buy a jerk chicken or pork and festival snack (if you’re greedy), grab a taxi home to deposit your gift if you want and catch one right back to another street dance with plenty rum, beer, and other alcohol. Grand Market lasts throughout the entire night and even though it dates back to slavery days can be very fun. I still remember stumbling home tired at 6:30 in the morning after an awesome Grand Market to get a couple hours sleep before getting ready for the Christmas morning church service.
Christmas Day is a day of baking, frying, roasting, and all forms of cooking. On this day you’ll find people bringing out meat that was seasoned from the day before to cook, boiling red peas and/or gungo peas, cutting up wood and bringing out coal (if you are from the rural sections of the island (country) and have the space), boiling water and other things for tea. Before leaving for the aforementioned church service (which was compulsory in my youth), you would find yourself seated around the table or on any available flat surface if you have family over. My family is huge and keep dropping by throughout the day, so flat surface usually means settee, chairs, ladders, stools, steps, tree stump and trunk, outside swing (swinga or swing song), and if every named surface is gone you have to lean against a wall or counter and sit on the ground. Honestly, Christmas can be like a family reunion. I’ve begun to ramble, sigh. Back to the original story.
For breakfast there would be good old Chocolate tea (Choklit tea) with ackee and saltfish and fry dumpling, boiled yam, boiled banana, fry breadfruit, boiled breadfruit, bread, fried boiled dumpling (making myself hungry typing these). Keep in mind that the Christmas morning breakfast does not have to be this.
After the church service, the cooking continues or those who went to church help out those who stayed home to cook. At the end of the day, the dinner table, counter and stove would be covered with some or all of the following: Curry Goat (Mutton), Christmas Rum Cake (Fruit Cake with Rum), Christmas Pudding, Roast Pork, Fried and Baked Chicken, Steamed and Fried Fish, Cow Foot and Oxtail, Potato Salad, Vegetable Salad, Mac and Cheese, Shrimp, Rice and gungo peas, Rice and peas, Wine, Original Wray and Nephew White Overproof Rum, Rum Cream and the ever-present Sorrel juice possibly with Rum or Wine. See the amount of rum that’s in that sentence? Yeah, rum head.
Once the cleaning up after this belly bursting meal is complete (or during said clean up), one would usually find themselves sleepy and in search for the nearest flat surface (again) to sit, talk and drink more rum, sorrel or tea while the children played or watch television. As twilight descended, family members would start telling stories of days gone past and children would start to settle down in groups or go to their respective parents. At the very end of the day the visitors start to depart, wishing those they leave behind a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to come” with hopes to see each other soon.
I’ve reached the end of this week’s way too long mumble and I do believe the best way to end it is to say “Merry Christmas Everyone”. Now excuse me while I go get myself a cup of sorrel to go with my Christmas cake.