Celebrating the Festive Season in the Caribbean


A report by Gay Nagle Myers for Travel Weekly.

How is Christmas celebrated Caribbean-style?

Since today is Christmas Eve, it may be too late to book a flight to witness a jolly Santa, garbed in a stocking hat and swim trunks and toting a sack full of toys, glide in on a surfboard, step onto a white sand beach and dole out gifts to good boys and girls. But to visit the region during the Festive Season, as it is dubbed in the Caribbean, is to be a witness to and a participant in holiday traditions and customs that reflect the history of the islands of the region.

As visions of sugar plums dance in our heads here at home, down in the islands the festival fever extends well into January.

In St. Croix, for example, the month-long, islandwide Crucian Christmas Festival in both Christiansted and Frederiksted features calypso shows, soca competitions, steel pan orchestras, quadrille dancers, horse races, pageants, face painting for the kiddos, Latin music venues, food fairs with johnny cakes, roti and plenty of coquito.
These festivities morph right into the Crucian Carnival celebrations, with the finale on Jan. 4 with Jump Up events: huge, town-wide parties with live music and performances by costumed mocko jumbie dancers who perch on tall stilts high in the air above the crowds.

Puerto Rico’s holiday traditions continue through to the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian Jan. 15 through 19 that marks the unofficial closing of the long holiday season.

During the multiday celebrations, Old San Juan is taken over by live music, circus performances and impromptu dancing on every street corner.

By day the plazas and streets are filled with local artists and artisans showcasing their wares. Once the sun goes down, concerts and parties take place across the walled city into the wee hours.

Puerto Ricans love parrandas, their version of caroling where friends and family go from house to house, surprising people with live music and food.

The lifesize gingerbread house at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort.

The lifesize gingerbread house at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort.

Visitors who stop in (or stay at) the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf and Beach Resort will get an opportunity for an Instagram-worthy photo of the resort’s life-sized edible gingerbread house, created by the resort’s pastry team and on display through early January.

Ingredients included 75 pounds of butter, 132 pounds of chocolate, three pounds of cinnamon and 600 eggs.
Visitors to Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and many other islands during the holiday period will be treated to black cake, a rich fruitcake whose ingredients include a mix of spices and fruits soaked in wine and lots of rum for several months.

Jamaica also hosts the Grand Market, a holiday tradition that features pop-up markets across the island in December with decorated vendor stalls selling toys, gift items and food.

These festive markets stay open late with music throughout the night.

Haitians place a large nativity scene under the pine Christmas trees in their homes and in the markets. Anisette, a mild alcoholic beverage prepared by soaking anise leaves in rum and sweetened with sugar, is the traditional beverage served on Christmas Day.

A traditional Jamaican holiday meal is a spread with baked ham, chicken, oxtail or curried goat, accompanied by yampi (sweet yam), rice and gungo peas.

Sorrel wine, a sweet Caribbean-style cocktail, is the official drink of the festive season in Jamaica as well as in Trinidad, Montserrat and Antigua.

The tart-and-tangy holiday punch is made with dried sorrel (hibiscus seeds) spiced with cloves, fresh ginger, pimento and laced with white rum.

Holiday drinks of choice include ponche de crema eggnog with added rum in Trinidad and Tobago, and shrub beverage (local rum infused with spices and clementine orange peels) in Guadeloupe.

The main dishes for Christmas dinner vary across most of the islands, but it’s common for a whole hog or goat to be slaughtered for the grand meal that day, served alongside macaroni pie, baked ham and turkey, Johnny cakes, plantains and potato pudding, topped off by black cake for dessert. The most popular dessert in the French-speaking islands is buche de Noel (Christmas log).

Antigua’s Christmas celebrations include the moko jumbie dancers, while Montserrat and St. Kitts feature a full calendar of musical and beauty competitions, fetes and parades right through the New Year.

Christmas day in Barbados is marked by musical performances by the Royal Barbados Police Force Band, tuk bands and gospel singers at Queens Park in Bridgetown.

Throughout the holiday season on Aruba, gaita bands perform at public venues all over the island. The music originated in Venezuela, and gaita bands are composed of a female singer accompanied by musicians on piano, tambu drum and guitars.

The Cayman Islands’ National Trust hosts a Christmas Lights bus tour so visitors can sample beef and cassava cake during a tour of local homes and gardens decked out for the season.

Junkanoo Festival in the Bahamas runs from Boxing Day on Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

From 1 a.m. through the early morning hours, downtown streets in Nassau and on many of the Out Islands are abuzz with parades of exuberant performers in colorful horned masks who drum and dance through the streets to the sounds of goatskin drums and cowbells.

Guadeloupe wraps up its Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with the start of its lively Carnival season on Jan. 1 that runs through March 6. Dance marathons, song contests and parades are centered in the capital of Basse-Terre.

In Bermuda, visitors and locals gather at Elbow Beach for food, drink and music on Christmas day followed by the arrival of the Gombies on Boxing Day, traditional troupes of costumed dancers who move to the rhythms of goatskin drums, tin whistles and beer bottles.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the Festive Season in the Caribbean

  1. In Cuba, the traditional “festive” dish is pork and white rice cooked together with black beans, called congrí or “moros y cristianos” (Moors and Christians). Beer and rum, of course. A little late, but feliz año nuevo!

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