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A Caribbean Christmas

‘Tis the season – and nowhere celebrates Christmas quite like the Caribbean! Here's a glimpse into what bloggers are doing to get into the spirit of the festivities…

Guyanese bloggers do a meme on “Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without…” For Signifyin’ Guyana, who started the meme, it's “my dad's ham” and “playing board games with my folks after we've all had a few and then some more.” Guyana 911 chimes in (sometimes cynically) with the following list:

- Christmas clean up.
Whoa.. what happened to this house. Are you moving out?

- Pepper Pot.
Time, tide and Jesus birthday waits for no pepper pot. Is the earth going to stop moving if you don't make pepper pot?

- Black Cake.

- A Christmas Tree.
Cut them all down, but lets not make Christmas cards out of em. No.. instead, we can make furniture. Now that's a revolutionary idea. Furniture… something anyone can actually use.

- Singer commercials.

- Painting over the house and anything else paint sticks to.

- Remittances.

Raptus8 thinks that gift-giving is an inseparable part of Christmas (once the gift is for him):

Since we are speaking about gifts I would like to say to all of my friends and family that you know I have lots of love for you but this year plz don’t expect anything but a Christmas card from me.

I’m broke; yes I’m broke…what? I got a promotion the other day? Yes I did but I’m not wealthy and I want to be, so I’m saving my money. I do hope that you will understand my position and that this will not discourage you from buying that special item you saw with my name on it…

In Jamaica, Iriegal says that while Christmas time is synonymous with family, the global financial crisis is having an impact on remittances and gifts sent to Jamaica from the diaspora:

We know it's Christmas time in Jamaica when the barrels start rolling in.

Tings kinda ‘salt’ this year though. The economy has made many items scarce and the shipping fee has gone up as well. Seems folks sending ‘gift cards’ now.

She also notes that the recession is making itself felt in other ways this Christmas:

Christmas is not Christmas without deh white dem. (Jamaican white rum). We use it for sorrel, Christmas Cake, Christmas Pudding and so on. So why did the people at Wray and Nephew dem lay off their workers right before Christmas. Isn't that shooting yourself in the foot?

Cuts are going on everywhere on the island, just as it is all over the world. The recession that the United States is feeling is a Global thing. Everything trickles down. What is sad is that many of the smaller islands do feel it more. When you don't make nothing, you don't have nothing and people try to take that ‘nothing’ away from you, it hurts.

Abeng News Magazine prefers to reminisce, taking a look at Christmas in “Old Jamaica” here and here.

Bermuda's The Devil Island.com knows its Christmas when Jose Feliciano sings Feliz Navidad, saying:

I swear, there is nothing that comes to mind as a more perfect, joyous, happy-making Christmas song.

Trinidadian blogger This Beach Called Life concurs, calling it “the best Christmas song ever” and even posting video of Feliciano singing his signature tune. He goes on to explain:

Jose Feliciano is an an accomplished guitarist and sings with a distinctive voice and style. Feliz Navidad has become a Cristmas classic and is now impossible to separate from the Christmas season. Feliz Navidad is one of the top 25 most played and recorded Christmas songs around the world.

However, fellow Trinidad and Tobago-based blogger Coffeewallah is finding it hard to get into the spirit of the season:

I constantly hear people talking about their ‘Christian’ beliefs. It never ceases to amaze me that a lot of these so-called Christian folk are the same ones who bitch the loudest when asked to contribute to a can drive or anything. The same people who will come around and ask you again and again for their children's raffle or whatever, when asked, their response usually is, I gave to something two months ago. I must remember that one for future use. Grinch behaviour coming alive here.

But the staples of a Trinbagonian Christmas somehow manage to bring her around:

The pointsettias were abloom, their spiky red leaves cheerily brightening the usually sombre space. Though the skies were rainy, inside we were snug, with our ponche de creme to warm us, some Christmas music to sing along with…and all was good.

Speaking of Christmas staples, Simply Trini Cooking salutes that time-honoured West Indian Christmas dessert, Black Cake, and includes a recipe should anyone want to try making it.

Barbados Underground posts a reminder about the reason for the season and expresses concern about the commercialization of the holiday:

Christmas 2008 will be celebrated in gloomy economic conditions but Barbadians appear to be following the script of behaviour from previous years…which sees the majority of our population motivated by commercial reasons to celebrate Christmas.

BU's apprehension is echoed by Dominica Weekly, which considers the true meaning of Christmas and goes one step further by asking what God would think of modern-day celebrations.

Christmas celebrations in the French-speaking Caribbean, on the other hand, appear to be steeped in tradition. With December 25th quickly approaching, the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyane are vibrating to the tune of their folk musical instruments like ka (a big drum)[Fr], ti-bwa (two bamboo sticks)[Fr] and of Christmas Carols. Welcome to the world of “Chanté Nwel” (Singing for Christmas)!

In the blog Sous le Soleil de Guadeloupe [Fr], Pat and Jac describe the paradoxical situation of the island, gripped with the Spirit of Christmas and raging through the gas crisis [En].

Still, there is one thing at the core of the Guadeloupean traditional celebration of Christmas and it is “Chanté Nwel”. Creole [En]for “Singing for Christmas” or “Singing Christmas (carols)”, it is the very shrine of Christmas in these French territories. “Chanté Nwel” used to be an opportunity for entire families to go around their neighborhood to visit neighbors and sing Christmas carols with them to the tune of the “ka” and the “ti-bwa”. At that time, it was in a safe atmosphere that people would go around their remote villages very late at night.

Although Chanté Nwel cannot be done in the same way as before, people still feel the need to sing Christmas carols together and in a very local way. You haven't celebrated Christmas, if you haven't been to a “Chanté Nwel”! It is such a vivid tradition that even the West Indian diaspora abroad wants to celebrate. On his blog Risbomontréal [Fr], a young Guadeloupean university student describes his joy at receiving an invitation for a “Chanté Nwel”:

Quelle bonne nouvelle que j'ai eu ce matin en ouvrant mon p'tit mac :D ! La news lettre de ces types super cool de Tropikal97 où ils invitent à participer à une super soirée diner/Chanté Noël + Boite de nuit à l'antillaise et tout ^^ !!!

I received great news this morning when I opened my lil’ mac :D! In the newsletter of the very cool guys of Tropikal97, there is an invitation for a nice dinner/Chanté Nwel and West Indian night club and stuff ^^!!!

It seems that the Chanté Nwel fever is spreading wherever French West Indians can be spotted: check out this invitation for a Chanté Nwel in Cergy, in the suburbs of Paris, published on the blog Carrefour du Soleil [Fr], by a group of West Indians. Or listen to Cactus, a Guadeloupean folk group that promotes Chanté Nwel in a blog called Cactus Chanté Nwel [Fr]. There is even a video of Cactus performing some Christmas carols, sung in Creole.

Can't manage a trip to the Caribbean this Christmas? Not to worry – the West Indian warmth transcends distance thanks to the voices of bloggers who share their stories of Christmas in Cuba, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Cayman Islands, and Puerto Rico. Some posts are more optimistic than others, but the sentiment of the season is palpable: Hope.

In the words of Bahamian blogger Womanish Words:

Suddenly, a choir. Singing Deck the Halls. Outside the dark living room window. And sistas, I mean, singing so beautifully.

I would have loved any carolers, the raw-boned, hollering kind I would have gratefully welcomed in these hard times. Any group of folks generous of spirit so, creative and cooperative and connected so, having spirit enough to gather themselves together and go sing-up Christmas for strangers, I have to love them. Especially now, when money is tight, and fundamentalism is dividing the neighbourhoods with hatred, and all are on guard against violent crime. We opened the door, lit a torch, gave a donation. They were all wearing Santa hats. They sounded like a choir out of Dickens. Perfect harmonies, soaring tenors. Our son asked, “Are they singing for us?” Yes, they were singing for us.

I thought it was a cosmic moment, a sign and a wonder, a message from the World of Spirit. Saying quite literally, go ahead and deck the halls, try Be Happy, celebrate, give. Do this to actively resist the fear, to transform it into something like good living.

Fabienne Flessel contributed to this post.

All images in this post courtesy janinephoto; used with permission.

4 comments

  • Goldie Simpson

    From Jamaica: As cybersapce closes the borders and brings people closer together, may we all have health, harmony and happiness for this Christmas and may it continue throughout 2009.

  • Fabienne

    Thank you Janine for this great and comprehensive post:as an inhabitant of the Caribbean, I’ve learnt a lot about other Caribbean people’s traditions, which are so close to ours: sorrel (jus de groseille), ham (jambon de Noël), eggnog (chodo).
    We do share so much but know so little about it! Isn’t it a shame.
    Thanks again,
    Fabienne

  • […] Besides the traditional celebration of Christmas, Guadeloupean people have recently taken up a new celebration: Kwanzaa, which starts on December 26 […]

  • Thanks for mentioning the Guyanese blogger thoughts abt christmas.

    P.s. I’m not male.

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