Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say. But when you speak of family dinners and breakfasts, grand market, church service and Jonkonnu, then you are talking about none other than the joyful, eerie Christmas in the sun. Here are some of the long-standing Christmas traditions in Jamaica.
Christmas Cooking and Family Gathering
As a Jamaican, no matter where you are in the world, unless circumstances are beyond your control, you make it a point of duty to return home for Christmas. Maybe it's because you miss Aunt Dar's and Mommy's famous cooking, Grandma's baking or Cousin Sam's sorrel. Christmas Day dinner is a definite must-do for Christmas in Jamaica. All and sundry forget about the summer bodies and dig in to their favourite dishes. Ham, roast chicken and curried goat are Christmas must-haves. Rice and peas, which we eat right throughout the year, takes on a twist at Christmas, when gungo (pigeon) peas are used instead of the usual red kidney beans.
The dessert of choice is always the Christmas (fruit) cake in which we use fruits which have been soaked in wine or rum, usually months, days or hours in advance. If it is done hours before, people tend to steam them together so that you can get the best of it and maximise the flavour. The longer you soak it, the better it is for your cake. More often than not, when family and friends stop by during the holidays, they expect to get a slice or two, along with a refreshing drink of sorrel - the signature Christmas drink made from the sepals of the sorrel flower, sometimes with the perfect spirits added.
If families fail to meet at any other time of year, at Christmas, they venture from near and far to the family home(s) to share in the special moments of catching up, reminiscing and just enjoying each other's company. Some even take the opportunity to invite friends whom they consider family and introduce their significant other to the extended family during this time. There is nothing like a Jamaican Christmas dinner, and according to tradition, families tend to meet at a matriarch's house.
Church at Christmas
Christmas Day would not be holy without an early-morning service to remind everyone of the real reason for the season. Churches are usually quite festive with their decor and they tend focus on Nativity scenes as part of their entertainment package. Carol services, Christmas plays and concerts are heavily featured during December. Some denominations (usually Anglican and Roman Catholic) even have midnight masses on Christmas Eve, or crack-of-dawn services on Christmas Day. While others have services later in the day, with penny concerts in the nights.
As December 24 breaks, stores, plazas, arcades, streetside stalls open to anxious shoppers who are out grabbing last-minute items to fill the base of their Christmas trees at what is known as Grand Market. It doesn't matter what you are looking for, bet your last penny, a store will be open to accommodate your wish list, so families and friends make a grand event out it.
Grand market, which takes place in some shape or form across the island, gives local vendors the opportunity to showcase their talent and make a profit for the season. The streets are abuzz with music and talent, with vendors trying to sell their goods straight 'til Christmas morning. But be sure to watch out for the pickpockets, they give the saying "like a thief in the night" new meaning.
Another activity that often gets us out of the house is the dance by Jonkunoo paraders. Not something the younger generation is very familiar with, this folk festival incorporates both African and European forms. The Jonkonnu Festival is secular in nature and its performance at Christmas time is merely historical. It was conceived as a festive opportunity afforded the slave class by the planter class, as Christmas was one of the few periods when the slaves were relieved of their duties.
The practice is practically extinct in some parts of the island, but for those continuing with the rich tradition, we salute you!
Giving back for the season
As the festive season kicks into high gear, so too does the appeal of the various charity groups. It really is the season for giving, and charities such as the Salvation Army, Feeding of the 5000, Mustard Seed, Missionaries of the Poor and National Children's Home, among many others, all encourage the wider public to spread the Christmas cheer, put a little love in their hearts and give back to those who really are in need.