From Spanish music, ghostly tales and carnivals to slow roasted suckling pigs, fried plantains and a chocolate Yule log, the countries of the Caribbean celebrate Christmas with many different foods and customs. One thing this festive feast day is sure to be is vibrant and sunny—with little sign that snow, holly and mistletoe is amiss.
Christmas cake with fruit soaked in rum is a traditional dessert in Jamaica, where their Christmas customs are similar to that of the UK. A special festive drink called sorrel (made from the meadow plant sorrel which is dried and mixed with sugar, orange peel, cinnamon, ginger and rum) is served over ice, and spicy jerk chicken and curried goat are popular Christmas dishes. Such delicious rich food is then worked off with a lively street festival known as Junkannu, which started during the slave trade when time off over Christmas would be celebrated by dressing up and dancing to traditional music. Today, the tradition is more commonly observed in rural areas; the street parties tend to go on into the night while revellers take a break to exchange gifts and feast some more.
Dancing is a huge part of Caribbean culture, and what better time to celebrate this than at Christmas? In Antigua, they celebrate their Scottish heritage by dancing the highland fling while wearing garments closely resembling a kilt. At just 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, this beach island is teeming with barbecues on Christmas Day. A traditional dish you might find served on this festive occasion is a soup dish called “Pepperpot,” which usually contains spinach, pork, corned beef and pumpkin.
Scottish heritage is still evident in Barbados, where a popular Christmas dish is “Jug-Jug,” made from ground meats and gungo peas (also known as pigeon peas)—the theory is that it was created by Scottish settlers who were missing haggis and wanted to create a Caribbean substitute. The traditional festive cake served here was deemed so delicious it was named Great Cake, (it’s also known as the Barjan Black Cake). At one time this cake was more akin to a British plum pudding, but today it resembles something far more Caribbean, with rum added to the recipe.
Trinidad and Tobago
In Trinidad and Tobago, the festive season starts as early as November, as residents start to transform their homes and gardens to get ready for the celebrations. New Year’s Eve is known as Ole Year’s Night, and fireworks are set off to mark the coming of the new year. Trinidadian Christmas carols and European carols are heard booming from people’s radios as people start to prepare their homes for the holiday season. On Christmas Eve, most residents attend midnight mass before the festive feasts begin. Such huge meals are not only shared with family and friends, but also parranderos—musicians who go from house to house serenading residents with traditional Trinidadian Christmas music known as parang and are often invited in to eat. Originating in Venezuela, parang music has a very Spanish feel, and is accompanied by an energetic hip-swinging dance.
Guyana—one of the few Caribbean countries which is not an island—celebrates Christmas by singing carols, visiting Santa Claus in department stores and making traditional rum-laced fruit cakes which are famous in the Caribbean, known in Guyana as Black Cake. A general theme around this festive time in the Caribbean is preparing the home to welcome family and friends, so new curtains are often hung and any necessary home repairs are carried out. Garlic pork and pepperpot are the traditional dishes of Christmas Day, which are served after residents have enjoyed performances by steel and masquerade bands surrounded by colourful carnival dancers who parade the streets, particularly in the villages.
The French Caribbean
The French islands in the Caribbean have the longest festive season, lasting until January 6 when the coming of the three wise men (or les rois) is observed and Christmas trees are taken down. Christmas on these islands has a distinct Creole feel, to be found in both their festive songs and food, with plenty of live music to accompany rum drinking, Creole Christmas cake and seafood dishes.
With more than 700 islands to choose, from a Caribbean Christmas offers something to suit everybody’s taste. The beautiful warm sun with which the Caribbean is blessed perfectly complements the warm spirit of goodwill which fills the air at this time. This, along with a carnival atmosphere and many sumptuous feasts, will be sure to replace any desire for snow, holly and mistletoe.