Jamaican Christmas Memories – Strong Spirits & An Irie Christmas Past
As a Child in Jamaica
I don’t have a great memory for detail. I couldn’t tell you what we wore in what year, or who visited. Couldn’t tell you how old I was when my Daddy’s American friend from work brought me my first Cabbage Patch doll with the signature on her butt. But I do know that that event happened at a Jamaican Christmas, when we lived in the Manor Park area on the Kingston side of Jamaica. I got one, and my little sister got one.
We had a fake tree but lord was it beautiful! I don’t think I had seen real snow yet, but the sprayed-on snow on this tree was so pretty I don’t think I felt like I was missing anything. My older sister still lived with us then too. On various Christmases before and after we either stayed home or visited family in the US. When I finally did see snow we frolicked in it, made a lame snowman (the snow hadn’t fallen thick enough for us to make a nice big one), and threw a few snowballs. But like a real island girl, me and the cold didn’t get on too well so a few snow angels later I’d had my fill forever more.
Back on the island, Christmas was time for family and friends. Like Americans, we enjoyed gifts and decorations, but Christmas food was the best! We were always visiting with the parents’ friends or they were visiting with us. It would get really loud, they’d all have drinks in their hands. If you behaved you might get a sip of that good sorrel. Not the weak one for the kids – the one with the rum in it! Then there would be platters of desserts.
The favorite was Christmas pudding. That’s fruitcake made with dried fruits that’s sat in a vat of port wine and white rum for the previous year. The fruits were pureed and then baked into the moist, mellow slices of sweet darkness we consumed throughout the season.
At the time I still ate pork, so the slab of ham decorated with pineapple spirals and dotted with maraschino cherries held a special place in my own heart. Then there was all the other regular food – roast chicken, escoveitched fish, curried goat, but instead of the regular rice and peas (what Americans know as red beans and rice), entrees were served with gungo peas (pigeon peas) and rice around the holidays. It was still made with a sweet hint of coconut milk so it was just as delicious or even more so.
In our house, my mother had a tradition of making eggnog from scratch, once a year, on Christmas morning. To this day I get upset if we’re together and she doesn’t make it. I wasn’t introduced to the much thicker and “rummier” Ponche Creme until closer to adulthood. (Mommy’s eggnog still wins if you ask me!)
Christmas on the Plazas
We’re not a rich country in general so if you couldn’t afford Christmas at home, you could hop on a bus and head down the the plazas. All the shops were decked out with huge, lit up candy cane and stocking art, tinsel, multicolored lights and fake snow. If you were somewhere else and felt like you had lost a bunch of people, the plazas were where you would find them all!
They’re a series of strip malls about half a mile long on either side of Constant Spring Road, heading toward Half Way Tree.
I was with a friend once in a US mall jumping in my car to head from one store to the next about a parking lot over. He asked if I remembered being in Jamaica when we’d walk from plaza to plaza instead of thinking we had to drive two store lengths. In my defense, an American Mall and a Jamaican Mall do NOT have the same store lengths. That said, however you got around the plazas, you were just happy to be there.
My Favorite! The Holiday Music
And with all these very generalized memories, the thing that I probably remember most specifically about the holidays in Jamaica is the music. Enjoying “The Salsoul Orchestra Christmas Jollies” and every imaginable Christmas record by Boney M. Nadine Sutherland’s “Santa Claus, do you ever come to the Ghetto?” asked whether certain people never saw Santa because they didn’t have a chimney. Even as a child that was a powerful reminder for me that everyone was not blessed equally and that if you had certain privileges, you should be grateful for them. Then there was “Santa Ketch Up Inna Mango Tree”. Not the snappiest of tracks, but definitely a reminder of Christmas on the island.
They’d play these songs over and over on the radio and in the stores. Versions of The Little Drummer Boy, Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls and even White Christmas. Whether they were sung by Jamaicans or not, these became some of our island classics. I’ll share a handful with you…
Music from My Jamaican Christmas Memories
This list is in no particular order of favorites, and you’ve probably heard some of them wherever you are in the world. But I promise unless you’re Jamaican you haven’t heard all. I hope they bring you some island cheer this holiday season. Wishing you and your family all the best, however you celebrate. And please have a spectacular New Year!