Gingerbread men and nativity scenes, Christmas trees and eggnog, caroling, turkey dinner, and the words Behave, Santa’s watching: These things mean Christmas to most. But in the islands of the Caribbean, it goes more like this: pasteles and Magi, century plants and spiked sorrel, masquerades, Jumbie Table, and Be good or John Canoe gwanna getchu.
You’ll find in the Caribbean many of the same traditions that represent the universal Christmas sentiment: A spirit of sharing, an overindulgence in good food and spirits, a gravitation toward family and friends, and a return to religious and cultural roots.
With their promise of deliverance from snow and chill, the islands’ definition of a White Christmas has more to do with sand beaches and a warm welcome to share in vibrant celebrations.
The prize for the longest and most fervent Caribbean Christmas season goes to Puerto Rico. Islanders begin the day after Thanksgiving and don’t give out until February. The celebration climaxes with the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Epiphany, on January 6, and on San Sebastian Day, January 20.
In old Puerto Rico, the family would begin in November preparing holiday dishes for weeks to come. Making pasteles (pork, raisin, and olive enchiladas wrapped in plantain leaves) required efforts of the entire family. And no family dared be caught without pasteles.
Every weekend during the pre-Christmas season, a disguised band of friends — armed with cuatros (small guitars) and guiros (corrugated gourds).
You can sum up the holidays in the Bahamas with one word: Junkanoo.
Haunting rhythms thump softly on goatskin drums. Whistles scream shrilly and color explodes in a combustion of feathers, sequins, and streamers. Nassau’s big event on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, leads the Junkanoo street parade tradition. But throughout the islands of the Bahamas, it translates as a cavalcade of costumed pageantry.
Today, massive local bands with names like The Valley Boys, Prodigal Sons, and Saxons compete. They dress in bright fringes of crepe paper and sequins layered onto cloth, gigantic cardboard, or wooden headdresses and shoulder frames. The j’ouvert (opening) party begins before daybreak on Boxing Day and continues in a burst of self-perpetuating energy.
5. Curacao And Bonaire
As part of the Dutch ABC islands with Aruba and Bonaire, Curacao shares many of the same traditions. Its rum-spiked ponche cream gets a pistachio infusion and December 5 is a red-letter day on the holiday calendar. That’s when Sinterklaas — the Dutch version of Old St. Nick dressed in a long white beard, red robe, and tall bishop’s miter — arrives in St. Anna Bay on a tugboat. He throws candy and goodies to kids lined up on shore.
Bonaire sticks to old traditions with caroling groups similar to Puerto Rico and the Fiesta di Bari, named after the traditional sheepskin drum that keeps the holiday beat. Both musical traditions perform throughout the season at local bars and special events.
6. St. Croix
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, islanders sip guavaberry rum beneath painted century trees. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, at St. Croix’s Christmas festival from December 11–January 7, Spanish guiros accompany American banjos and Caribbean steel drums to produce holiday music uniquely Crucian. Highlights include pageants, a carnival village, a food fair, a j’ouvert, and kids and adult parades. Quelbe (the official music of the USVI) lyrics sweeten tunes with island flavor: “Mama bake your johnny cake, Christmas a’comin’” and “Good mawnin’, good mawnin’, I come fo’ de guavaberry.”
Not as renowned as some of the bigger islands, but equally steeped in tradition and flavor, is the Christmas celebration on the tiny isle of Montserrat. Here, where masquerades, steel drum bands, and street “jump-up” dancing prevail throughout December, the household Jumbie Table remains the true showcase of holiday heritage.
Jumbie means “ghost” in Caribbean dialect. Montserratians, although strongly Irish-influenced, share the Scandinavian belief that ancestral spirits return at Christmas to join in festivities. A Christmas Eve table is thereby set to share with them, including traditional specialties and the island’s unique white rum ginger wine.