Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas in Woodlands District in the Fifties

(It was Really sinting!)
Basil Waine Kong

Growing up in St. Elizabeth is fraught with wonderful memories, especially of Christmas. As I look back, I see manicured lawns,(freshly chopped with a sharp machete or a donkey, horse or even goats). Any of these animals can eat down the grass. I remember gleaming white washed stones about six feet apart lining the walkways right up to the house steps and white washed trunks of trees in the yard. Christmas also coincides with the advent of winter when there is a precipitious drop in daily temperatures from the eighties to the seventies. We call it "Christmas Breeze", which is one step above "Cool Breeze"!

I have traveled the world and no where can make you feel more welcome as rural St. Elizabeth. There is no greetings, huggs and smiles more sublime. I imagine Jamaicans living foreign flock home for Christmas just for that feeling of welcome, familiarity and belongingness from “femi people”. It's nice that these “Been-to” people bring money, presents, music, movies and food to show off what a success they have made of themselves! We can be a loving, jocular, generous but slightly contentious people.

The children were always on stage when I was a child. Not only did we perform regularly in school and church plays under thatched roofs and in our homes, we were always being coached in poetry, singing and dancing by Ms. Mavis Smith for “Festival” that was held in Santa Cruz each year. Whenever relatives and friends visited, we were asked to recite poems, tell a joke, spell words, sing or dance. One of the important jobs that adults joyfully accepted was to encourage and big up the yuths with a heap of praise. Those of us who grew up in the country have great egos because we didn’t know we were poor or we even thought we were bulby (bright). Children were front and center of the community. The adults regularly beat the hell out of us to keep us in line but we felt loved nevertheless. I started working in Mass Claudie’s shop at about ten years old and at our Saturday night dances, the older people enjoyed putting me up on the counter to dance and then give me money. The popular dances back then were: “Back to back, belly to belly”, “Banana, banana, banana” and "Ramadin and Valentine".

Many unfamiliar foods and dry goods came to us by way of vans and visiting relatives and friends. We are a mountain community but we were able to enjoy lobsters, fish and even clams brought to us by vans. We got bread, buns and bullahs from Harry Chen See’s bread truck. When you bought a whole loaf of unsliced hard dough bread, we got a brata of two bullahs. We would watch out for the passing of the truck, run to the roadside to hale the driver, bought the bread (unwrapped) and put it into the bread basket that hung by a hook close to the ceiling. Our usual breakfast was a “hunk of bread with butter”, a boiled egg and hot fresh cow’s milk. I liked my bread with sweet condensed milk! We ate whatever fruits were in season throughout the day from anyone's property. Children had a free run of the place with no concern about property lines.

I am not sure that this is true for all families in Jamaica but for our family, we took food to everyone we visited and also brought food back home from whatever was left over especially at Christmas, funerals and weddings. In other words, we are always bringing and taking food. We don't like anyone to be hungry. If someone is going to America, a roast breadfruit, ache, corn pone and gizadas were in tow. When they returned, packed away in their luggage were hams, canned pears and peaches packed in syrup.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, every household prepared sorrel with and without rum but with lots of ginger. I loved the beautiful red colour and tart taste. A roast (beef) and fruitcake would also be prepared to serve to all who visited. Aunt Myra’s roast was the best! The fruits (raisins, currants, plums) for the Christmas fruit cake would be soaked in rum and port wine for several months before baking day. I usually couldn’t wait for the cake so I would eat the batter while I helped to rub the ingredients together. Those who really wanted to show off would also have a Christmas ham from 'merica that was sliced as thin as a razor blade and treated like gold. The ham bone was used later for soup. If you greet someone with "Happy Christmas" or "Merry Christmas" before Christmas day, the receiver of the greeting predictably add: "When it comes".

On Christmas Day, we woke up as soon as the first cock crowed. We got dressed and greeted each other with “Happy Christmas” and a smile. While we did not send Christmas cards or exchange presents, on Christmas mornings, the first thing we looked forward to was Granny's egg punch. She put on the milk to scold (heat up), break a dozen eggs and carefully separated the red (yolk) from the white. She handed the bowl with the yolk and brown sugar to Uncle Elton to grind and the whites with a few drops of water to Uncle Ronnie to whip with a fork. When the yolk was nice and creamy and the white was nice and fluffy, she combined them, added hot milk, a Guinness stout and a Red Stripe Beer, nutmeg, vanilla extract, mixed it all up and served it for breakfast. wow! But you must remember to take out the eye (germinal cell) or the punch will taste "raw". After breakfast, we blew off steam by blowing up fire crackers that was answered by the other people in the community. I prided myself on being able to hold the fire crackers in my fingers without getting hurt. Other boys were not so lucky and lost fingers.

Some of the people from Springfield Church walked to the houses of those who were sick and shut in to sing Christmas Carols with them. While the equivalent of Santa Claus is "Father Christmas" in Jamaica, he existed as a concept and I never had the experience of being handed a gift by the old man.

Busha Price (Granny's friend) would be at our house by 8:00 am all dressed up with suit, tie, handkerchief in his breast pocket, felt hat, black and white shoes, his walking stick tipped with brass and always had some small change, maybe a sixpence for the children. After drinking some of Granny's egg punch, he would say: "Ms. Rosie, it mak mi cranium crawl" which I interpreted to be a good thing. We asked if he wasn't going to wipe the egg punch from his fluffy mouth stash. He delighted in telling us that that is his way to save some for later.

After breakfast, Granny would give us our Christmas money and we headed out to the community picnic at Shield’s Pon where vendors sold ice cream and fresco, grater cake, pound cake, jerk pork, fried fish, cane juice, peppermint sticks, and all the treats of Christmas. It was a show when the old soldiers would march with wooden rifles. Herbie Arnold’s rumba band would play all day. I loved the colourful Maypole and the Merry-go-round. Two strong men could turn four swingers. While we never had an elaborate “Jankonoo”, someone would put on a horse head mask and dance around on stilts. The next week, all the Pickney dem built stilts and try to dance around on them like the Jankonoo man.

It was a day when everyone shared what they had and indulged: “Eat, drink and be merry” were the orders of the day. The women and children mostly drank the sorrel and ginger beer, but all the men got drunk and everybody danced. The rule was that all the men had to dance with all the women regardless of age or relationship, so the old people and the smallest pickney would get into the act as well. But mostly, the old people would sit against the wall and watch the young people wind up dem waist. Everyone was in a festive mood and buying waters (rum) and Red Stripe Beer for each other.

While no one ever dressed up like “Father Christmas”, all the children received balloons, fifi that curled up like a snake and other noise makers that amused us for several days. And we didn’t have Christmas trees either; but our houses were decorated with poinsettias that grew wild in our community.

Every Jack man shaved holding a two edge razor blade very gingerly, got their hair cut, their pants creased and their shoes shined. The ladies got their hair done, dressed up in fancy crinoline dresses and were awash with kuss kuss perfume. The girls put coconut oil on their legs and they looked amazing!

The Sunday closest to Christmas, we not only read the wonderful Christmas story but sang all the Christmas Carols at Springfield Moravian Church. As service lasted more than two hours, there was no hurry. My favorite Christmas Carol was “I saw three ships come sailing in” by Ms. Maude. We were also treated to a Christmas play on Sunday night directed by Mrs. Joyce Chang in which I always participated. For atmosphere, we put candles in oranges and lit up the place. The boys also burned each other with the wax. I am surprised that the church never caught fire except that the Grannies were never far away to keep control.

Our festivities did not end with Christmas day as we had a cricket match as well as a horse race with lots of betting on “Boxing Day”(day after Christmas).
Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes, it brings good cheer! Happy Christmas to all! (When it comes)

Note. After all the young people migrated to England in the late fifties and early sixties, there was no more festivities and no more joy in our district! Our community became a community of Grannies raising grand children.

Dr. Kong! Fabulous article!! I shall forward to friends!
Happy Holidays!
Debra Ehrhardt

Hi Waine:
I loved this story on the Jamaican Christmas. I know it's your story, but it reads like a story right out of an anthology of Christmas stories by well known authors. Yours is more intriguing and detailed. Many of your descriptions are similar to our experiences. It is so sad that many children today will never experience these simple but oh so memorable joys of Christmas. I do hope that you and Stephanie will have a wonderful, blessed holiday. I hope we can get together at some point over the holidays. Love to you both.
Janet and Julius
Waine, thanks for sharing this. Sounds like we had similar childhoods across the "Pond".

Tom Vaughn

Beautifully remembered and written. I'm glad I waited until now to read it instead of rushing through it earlier. I enjoyed it.

Kim R LaRue, RN