Oh, for an old-time Jamaican Christmas

Oh, for an old-time Jamaican Christmas


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jonkunnu parades were a big feature of Jamaican Christmas (PHOTO: KARL MCLARTY)

THIS is the time of year when I always reminisce about those unforgettable days of never-ending fun and frolic in Jamaica. There was no guessing about this memorable event because I felt the soothing “Chrismus breeze” gliding across my face.

I can still recall what transpired at Christmastime in the 1940s and 50s. In anticipation of Christmas Day, the house underwent a thorough cleaning. The floors and furniture were immaculately polished, cobwebs removed, linen washed, new curtains hung, and everything was spick and span. The yard was also meticulously attended to. Weeds were removed, stones put in the proper places, and the entire yard was swept on a daily basis until it was free of debris and all fallen leaves.

Now the stage was set for the elaborate undertakings and celebrations that lasted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

I can never forget the beehive of activities on Christmas Eve night on city streets and in the stores where shoppers were extremely busy buying gifts and frolicking. A significant number of people attended church services, and other services were also held very early on Christmas morning. The air was filled with the melodious and enthusiastic singing of carols as people walked through various communities.

After this flurry of joyous activity, everyone geared up for a scrumptious breakfast. This celebrated first meal of the day was made up of a conglomeration of ackee and salt fish or mackerel, boiled green bananas, roast breadfruit, fried plantains, hard dough bread, chocolate tea, coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice.

This large consumption of foodstuff was sometimes followed by a relative period of relaxation when neighbours exchanged greetings. This was a time when firecrackers exploded, dominoes slammed down forcefully, marbles clattered in the rings, and tops spun out of control. All these things occurred while the usual political and religious chatter reverberated.

As the day wore on everybody’s mind was focused on the traditional Christmas dinner. This was a meal fit for a royal family. I can never forget the huge bowl of rice and gungo (pigeon) peas, the succulent roast beef, ham, curried goat, and fried chicken. What made this meal delectable was the fact that the meat was very fresh. Everything was finger-licking good.

The array of drink was no less impressive. I can fondly remember the ingredients in the sorrel that tickled my taste buds — cinnamon, ginger and sugar. The aerated drinks (pop) were tastier than what are being served today, and the ginger beer was unparalleled. Of course, the older folk had their usual fill of rum, rum punch, red South African wine, etc. I would be remiss if I did not mention the customary eggnog which was a concoction of beaten eggs, milk, spices, and alcoholic spirits. It went without saying that my siblings and I had to settle for eggnog free of alcohol.

And who can forget the daintily sliced fruitcake and plum pudding with their lavish ingredients of raisins, currants, and spices of all kinds. The actual preparation for making the fruitcake and plum pudding was a ritual wherein the raisins and currants were soaked in red wine or white rum for many weeks. The delectable cake and pudding were amply served with jello or egg custard.

It should be noted that Christmas was open house time, when friends and relatives visited one another and revelled in food and drinks. The Christmas festivities were not complete without the usual entertainment of fairs with live bands that imitated the big band sounds of America. This was the time for dancing and general merrymaking, and there were always lots of activities for children.

Some Jamaican Christmas festivities are rooted in both British and African cultures. Thus, it is not surprising that there is a revival of jonkunnu parades which are of African origin. As a youngster, I always looked forward to the colourful parades. I can vividly recall the cowhead- and horsehead-masked characters that were central to the parades. The melodious sounds of horns, fifes, and drums will always re-echo in my ears.

One of the unforgettable highlights of the Christmas season occurred on Boxing Day with the opening of the pantomime at the Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston. The classic performances of the late Ranny Williams (Mass Ran) and Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) were unmatched.

Who could ask for anything more? That was Christmas celebration and entertainment in the island of Jamaica.

Merry Christmas to all Jamaicans, whether living at home or abroad.

Rupert Johnson is a Jamaican living in Toronto, Canada. Comments: r.b.johnson@sympatico.ca