Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The once a year that is Christmas

Christmas is essentially a religious festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but its true meaning has been lost for many people. In the Caribbean the strong influence of Christianity has kept the religious element to the forefront of lives in this region. Whatever else happens at Christmas it really revolves around the religous celebration. It is a time for giving and receiving which takes on a some special shape where I spend Christmas, in Nassau.

Christmas Eve is the final time to prepare for Christmas Day. Last minute shopping is essential for some even with weeks of shopping already done. The food preparation starts and takes up most of the day. The house smells wonderful as the seasoned ham and turkey are roasted and fresh bread is baked. We already had a day with the kitchen filled with the smell of "benny cakes" (sesame seeds and caramelized sugar) and "peanut brittle" (peanuts in caramelized sugar).

The long Eve-day ends with a visit to church for midnight mass. Carols precede the service, which means getting to church for 11pm. The mass ends around 2.30am, and is then followed in this family with a visit to a sister of my mother-in-law for chicken souse, sheep tongue souse and Johnny [journey] cake (a kind of flour and cornmeal bread--in other Caribbean countries "Johnny cake" refers to a completely different dish but each based on flour and water). (For non-Bahamians reading, Bahamian souse is hot and is really like a broth with potatoes, celery and onions, not the cold cooked pork dish that is familiar to Bajans.) A wide array of traditions exist for Christmas in terms of events and food and it makes good reading to see how that varies [see BBC web site].)

On Christmas Day morning the young children rise earliest of anyone and make sure that their parents are awake too. Some of the little ones are awake from in the middle of the night. Cookies and milk were already placed ready for Santa's arrival: we tickle the children's imagination and ask if they can see Santa coming on his sleigh or ask if they can tell which reindeer is Donner and which is Blitzen. It takes less than ten minutes for their presents to be unwrapped. Paper flies all over the floor and the gifts get their moments of glory. "Ooh! A bike", "Dora and her own back pack", "Lipstick", "Harry Potter!", "A camera"...

Slowly those who are past their teens appear in their PJs. Grandma and Grandpa take centre stage in the rest of the proceedings, as we all gather near the Christmas tree. Like the children the grandparents' first thoughts are about their gifts. No real exchange of gifts takes place. The tradition with my in-laws is for the daughters in the family to organize a pool to buy one substantial gift for each person. The household is a true queen-dom and the few males who are present are fondly overshadowed by the women. For Christmas gifts we men will get a few items that really please: a tool kit, a radio or a camera make good gifts. But the ladies get the real big set of treats: jewelery, perfumes, earrings, other accessories. I am personally always content with any gift I get and I love to get a bottle of cologne or aftershave. There is nothing that most of us need but plenty that we want and we know that Christmas has become a time for self-indulgence.

Once all the gifts have been opened regular life resumes and we really start on the road toward Christmas dinner. In this family the tradition is to have a rotating location, with all relatives gathering at a designated home. Cooking is shared. Several turkeys and hams are cooked in different homes. My mother-in-law makes macaroni pie. One of her sisters is in charge of peas and rice and baked beans (guarding a family recipe from her father). A third sister, who bakes for a living, is in charge of the array of desserts. We all take charge of eating as much as we can.

After the meal the events are varied. When I first shared Christmas with this family nearly 10 years ago each family would try to give a brief account of what they had achieved or had to deal with over the past year. But this "tradition" seems to have lapsed and a variety of "presentations" now take place, but with no structure. The main thing is that the many branches of the family are together for one day and we are content to share time and to exchange stories.

After all the eating and drinking it's time for rest. The already long day has a long way to go. Junkanoo will start at about 2am so those who want to attend would be wise to get some rest; by the time it ends near 9am many of the spectators are ready to hit their bed.

This family has added another event in recent years: the "dine and dash". The normal meaning of this phrase is to eat a meal and run out of a restaurant without paying (sometimes called "chew and screw" or "doing a runner"). However, our version is almost the opposite and quite honorable. We rent a minibus and take a tour to a few family homes on one of the days after Christmas, taking one course at each stop: appetizers, salads, main course, desserts and coffee. It's a chance to eat something a little more exotic than the traditional Christmas dishes as each family tries to be adventurous and offer something special. The "dine and dash" takes a whole afternoon and has been the source of a few adventures. The first year the minibus got a puncture on our way to the last stop, which this time was home, and we had to be rescued by a wrecker and the busload was ferried in a shuttle of cars.

All of that is enough to wear out the best. But it is all part of a celebration, perhaps over indulgent to some. But celebrations by definition need to be excessive. Christians believe that this time of year, and remembering the birth of Christ, is when they should be excessive about their faith. They and their beliefs get refreshed.

The old year will soon be done and we are again ready to send it out on a high note, which is Christmas. On that high note we will sing our Alleluias.

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