Christmastime in Old Jamaica: The Teenage Years

As Jamaica modernized, little things started to slip away. Sometime in the early 70s, importation of firecrackers from China was banned after it was discovered that the powder was being extracted from the firecracker by unscrupulous persons to make ammunition for guns. So the festivities during the season were decidedly quieter, and as shopping for clothes became more and more a year-long exercise, the element of excitement and the appreciation of getting everything new at Christmas changed. The start of the academic year changed from January to September, so new uniforms, shoes and school supplies had to be procured in August.

Progress was pricey. Commercial paint for walls and fences became the done thing and demand for white lime was sharply reduced. The 4 o’clock pre-dawn adventures disappeared in our community, and only the streaks of morning-light across the sky got us out of bed, with no firecrackers to provide excitement or play the role of wake-up call.

Fewer persons made the morning visitations; Christmas cakes replaced the loaves of bread and the pones. Sorrel came and people added white rum to it as a flavor. Poinsettias were introduced to us and everyone wanted it in their garden, so the red-and-white theme dominated.

One of the constants for us was the Christmas breeze, bringing on its wings a respite from the everyday cares, and an anticipation of goodwill and peace. Christmas was when hostilities were placed on hold.

As teenagers we sang carols, for we had radios now, transistor radios, big ones at home and small ones to carry around. This contraption made us more aware of what was happening elsewhere in Jamaica and in the world, so our thoughts went beyond our little district of Queensbury.

Boxing Day was picnic day, held at the school, and you had to pay to go in and dance. Starting at nine and ending at five, the day was for the young, and teachers were on hand to supervise. The scenes were indelible: the green wooden bucket with a turning handle that churned ice cream, a veritable treat; the candy ladies doing brisk business with their glass cases of red and white candy cane, coconut drops, gizzadas and red and white grater cakes. This was not a day for cooked food, at least not until you returned home, exhausted from the all-day dancing.

As Christmas became more commercialized and life became more materialistic things changed. I remember the first time we got a Christmas tree at home. It was made from willow branches and decorated with Christmas cards and gift-wrap paper, and it was a source of great excitement.

The visitations became less and was now an afternoon stroll with brief visits. At this time my parents would serve sherry or brandy to the men, and cake and sorrel to the women. They would sit and talk. In later years my older sister would visit with her family from Kingston, and I would have the babies all day to play with.

The last day of the year was special, it was the closing of a year, and a time to thank God for His blessings and goodness as you wait in anticipation for the new beginning. Watchnight was firstly a household tradition; adults would spend the waning hour of the year drinking coffee and talking all night and sharing stories and events of the past year.

Our special treat was usually a visit by a gentleman from Westmoreland who served in World War 11. He knew some French words picked up as a soldier on the French frontier. He would tell us about his duty in the Royal Air Force and fighting the Germans, and we would listen wide-eyed until the sand man threw dust into our eyes and we were carted off to bed, leaving the adults talking until midnight when they would all go out to look at the new day of the new year and then retire to bed.

That watch evolved into watchnight services at church in our locality. They watched for the dawning of a new year with all its possibilities, good and bad.  Things were always calm at Christmastime, peaceful and serene. All conflicts were set aside as good cheer and goodwill prevailed. Perhaps you Kingstonians can tell me about Christmas market and what it was all about.

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Michael Simpson

A very interesting topic which tells us about the drastic changes in Jamaica

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

[…] Aleon'ny Abeng News Magazine mamerina an-tsaina ny lasa, mijery ny Krisimasy tamin'ny “Jamaika fahiny” ato sy ato. […]

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