CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS IN JAMAICA
The African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ) was established in 1972 as a division of the Institute of Jamaica to deepen public awareness of African cultural retention and its relationship to the other ethnic groups in Jamaica. In 1990, the Jamaica Memory Bank (JMB) was integrated into the ACIJ, forming the ACIJ/JMB. The JMB documents Jamaica’s social history via audio-visual recordings of the memories of senior citizens throughout the country. The ACIJ/JMB has a wealth of resources relating to Afro-Jamaican and other ethnic cultural heritage and a vast area of Jamaica’s social history.
In fulfilling its mandate, the ACIJ/JMB has developed a systematic research and documentation programme, thereby establishing its importance as a centre for the study of African presence in Jamaican and Caribbean culture. This programme includes research conducted on traditional dance forms, various aspects of language, traditional and popular music, religions, food, social movement, herbal medicine, festivals and community histories.
The ACIJ/JMB also maintains a vibrant Outreach Programme. Outreach sessions and lecture demonstrations are conducted island-wide at schools, teachers’ colleges and community groups on request. Through this medium, the division informs the public of aspects of our culture, unearthed through research.
Over the years, the division’s research projects have yielded a growing audio-visual archive of materials, including thousands of images and hundreds of interviews, cultural events and folk forms which are catalogued and stored in the division’s library and are available for use by researchers, teachers, students and the general public. Additionally, the library boasts a rich collection of books and periodicals on Africa and African retention in the Caribbean.
The ACIJ/JMB has researched and documented Jamaica’s Christmas traditions, including:
The Jonkunnu Masquerade
It is believed that Jonkunnu originated in West African societies and emerged from their well- established masquerading traditions, such as the Gelede traditions of the Yoruba-Nago peoples of Benin. However, like many West Indian traditions, they were also shaped by European influences and customs and as such Jonkunnu is, today, a blend of African rhythmic drumming, European costuming and distinctly creolised elements, such as the bamboo fife and certain “characters”. The practice is identified with the Yuletide Season as it was during that period that enslaved Africans were allowed time to partake in any major celebration or traditions for themselves.
The Jonkunnu masquerade is performed in towns and villages at Christmastime. Participants are usually masked and engage in dancing and revelry, and oftentimes scare young children who are afraid of the appearance of the characters, particularly the Devil with his cracking whip. Other Jamaican Jonkunnu characters are Pitchy-Patchy, Masquerade Queen, Ku-Ku or Actor Boy, Warrior, Devil, Belly Woman, Policeman, Babu – the East Indian, and Cowhead or Horse head. Over the years, the core characters have changed as western movie characters have been added to the performing ensemble.
The practice, however, declined rapidly in popularity the mid-1800s, and in 1841 the mayor of Kingston even banned Jonkunnu parades due to frequent clashes between revellers and the police. Jonkunnu became almost non-existent, except in the rural areas, which were excluded from the ban. Today, several school and community groups continue the tradition and many use the occasion to raise funds.
The Buru Masquerade
The Buru is another African-derived masquerade which the enslaved population on the plantations practiced at Christmas. It was originally used as a fund-raising activity by the enslaved who wanted money to buy food and other items for their Christmas feast. Performers created a procession which paraded in streets, entertaining spectators. The celebrations usually began on Christmas Eve and continued until New Year’s Day.
The main characters in Buru include the Horse-Head, Donkey and Madder (Mother) Lundy. However, over time, other characters were introduced, such as Cow-Head and Doctor. These characters were all played by men as it was considered vulgar for women to lift their skirts in the way in which the dance movements required. Masks were used as part of the costumes in order to hide the identity of the wearer. This was necessary as, oftentimes, the Buru characters poked fun at individuals or events in the society through song, so the activity served as a sort of social commentary. In Old Harbour Bay, St. Catherine, for example, Buru is practised on Christmas day but participants spend weeks composing songs which tell of the scandalous behaviour of residents, who in turn, have to pay the masqueraders to leave or move on.
In this regard, Buru also functions as a cleansing mechanism, a feature shared by its West African antecedents. As a result, persons within the community were always mindful of the fact that if they participated in any scandalous activity or displayed similar behaviour, it was possible that they could become the topic of a Buru song.
The Buru characters are always accompanied by musicians. There are at least three drummers and other musicians who use scrapers, rattles and other percussion instruments. The drums used are the fundeh, the repeater, and the bass – drums that are now used by the Nyahbinghi Order of Rastafari. In Jamaica, Buru is currently practised in Old Harbour Bay, St. Catherine, and in Clarendon in communities such as Bowens and Hayes.
Christmas Garden Parties
Sources indicate that the Roman Catholic Church had established the practice of Christmas Garden Parties and there are accounts of activities being held at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Kingston. Oral testimonies suggest that Fr. Francis Kempel, S. J., started the practice in Seaford Town, (German Town) Westmoreland, when he was assigned to the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in 1925. The Christmas Garden Party is traditionally held on Boxing Day, and the whole community is invited to come together and donate items including ice cream and snow cones and even sewn, embroidered, crocheted and knitted items which were produced by girls and ladies in the community. Children’s activities include games such as grab bags and the merry-go-round.
The Christmas Eve Grand Market
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, merchants in Kingston and other commercial districts placed advertisements in the local newspaper from as early as November to entice shoppers to come to their establishment for Christmas gifts. Many stores also decorated their windows and display areas to attract customers. In rural Jamaica, however, the Christmas Eve “Grand Markets” emerged out of the practice of the enslaved who would put their wares on sale prior to the Christmas holiday. The Grand Market originally offered food and craft items prepared by the enslaved and has now progressed to offer a variety of foods, clothes, toys, and gift options. Some stalls now even offer traditional Christmas puddings for sale. On Christmas Eve, the long-standing tradition of the Grand Market is a treat for many Jamaicans, especially young children. Vendors gather to sell their wares at key locations around the island from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning, attracting patrons who attend to shop and others who simply bask in the party atmosphere.
Traditional Jamaican Christmas food and drink:
The Sorrel Drink
The sorrel drink, made from the calyx of the sorrel plant and mixed with a variety of ingredients ranging from cloves, ginger, sugar and rum, is a favourite among Jamaicans at Christmas. The plant was introduced to Jamaica shortly after the arrival of the British in 1655. However, many will be surprised to know that the plant is native to West Africa. The most common way in which sorrel is used is in the making of a refreshing drink, but the sepals can be used to make other items, such as jellies, jams, teas and chutneys.
Gungo Peas and Rice
The Christmas family meal is one that is enjoyed by gatherings of family and friends. The Christmas meal includes a variety of dishes such as fried chicken, curried goat, ham, turkey, roast beef, roast pork, all accompanied by rice with gungo peas. At Christmas, gungo peas replace the red peas variety associated with regular Sunday dinners. The peas are steamed with white rice and the pot is seasoned with a variety of seasoning including thyme, pepper and escallion. Both green and dry gungo peas are abundant during the Christmas season and are available in markets, shops and supermarkets island-wide.
Plants associated with Christmas:
Christmas plants – The Poinsettia and Euphorbia
As the temperature falls and the famous “Christmas breeze” arrives from North America in December, the anatomy of the Jamaican Christmas begins to take shape and homes and businesses are decorated with Christmas lights, Christmas trees and, of course, Christmas plants. Nature has bestowed on the Jamaican landscape two beautiful plants which bloom at Christmas, namely the Poinsettia (commonly called the ‘Christmas Star’) and the Euphorbia leucocephala, also called ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Snowflake Bush’. Poinsettias are originally from Mexico where they are known as Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), and can grow up to three metres in height. They bloom in red, yellow and pink varieties and engender a lively Christmas spirit. They are also decorative and make Christmas gifts.
The Euphorbia, also from Central America, makes a beautiful garden plant, especially when teamed with the flaming, red poinsettia. Euphorbias produce a lovely fragrance which attracts insects, while providing a pleasing scent associated with the season.