Culture

Jankanoo!

Christmas time in Jamaica a long, long time ago was centered on family, friends and neighbours. We had certain all important Island traditions during this time. Roadside work was given to the men in the neighborhood to clean up the streets and cut the brushes by the roadside. Neighbors started cleaning up their yard space, cutting grass and painting or more accurately white-washing their tree trunks and who could afford it would paint their houses inside and out while scrubbing floors, windows and everything in sight preparing for the upcoming holidays. Most importantly, fruits would be soaked in rum for the all important black Christmas cake. It was simple and humble preparations compared to now, but it was also a magical time. There was an exciting phenomenon known as jankanoo.

 

I don’t know where the concept of it originated from (I’m guessing some region in Africa) but it was a very interesting mix of people, usually men, dressed up in costumes made from very bright colorful fabrics and with face masks that was made to scare the daylights out of you. They would dance to the musician’s drums and tambourines that were being played as we accompanied this mystic band of revelers. Adults and children alike usually followed the band and dancers as they wove through the streets of my community, Lionel Town, singing and dancing up a storm making merry music in the early Christmas morning, emphasis on the word early. It was an amazing event and one that was waited upon all year with great anticipation. It was exciting and great fun especially for us children. We would go to bed as late as possible Christmas Eve night and between then and Christmas morning with as little as three, four hours sleep we would wake up at four or five in the morning when it was still dark, daylight savings time was not yet implemented. We would awake to the sounds of drums, boom, boom, beating at the top of our street. Chaos would begin as we scrambled out of bed, literally grabbing the first piece of clothing we laid hands on, fighting to get it on and fighting to get space at the bathroom sink to wash our faces and brush our teeth as we hurried trying not to miss all the excitement that was approaching. As the band approached our gate we would naturally gravitate towards it, looking intently at the masks, scared out of our wits but excited all the same watching the characters dance and frolic in colorful costumes and on stilts too. It was just a wild scene. I think the whole affair was put on by the Boys Brigade organization of Lionel Town simply because our neighbour and head drummer was a member. We tried to stay together at first but got jostled in different directions as the crowd moved along and sometimes we’d even see our other friends from the neighbourhood and we’d just walked on enjoying the whole spectacle. The whole crowd would go from street to street, drums and tambourine music rousing people from sleep that went through the same routine we did to get out of their house.

 

After following for awhile you had the option to stop and go back home whenever or wherever along the route you chose. Of course by this time it was fully daylight and a new realization and fun begins. We now realized in our rush to get out of the house and the darkness of the hour, our blouses or dresses were sometimes put on inside-out or backwards and sometimes we would put our Bata crepe (sneakers) or sandals on the wrong feet. It was hilarious and we weren’t the only ones. Like the children we were, we would just point on each other’s mishap and laugh at ourselves. (Laughing at ourselves has great therapeutic values. It was so easy to do as a child) By the time we got home the most delicious Christmas morning breakfast would be awaiting us. Traditional breakfast, ackee and saltfish with fried dumplings and hot chocolate tea spiced with nutmeg, vanilla and sweetened with condensed milk. We also had non traditional breakfast too in the form of bacon, eggs, toast and orange juice. That was a special breakfast for us as we didn’t have it often. By midmorning we would be drinking sorrel or sodas and eating spiced Christmas cake savouring every bite. Christmas is a lot more sophisticated and commercially driven now and the emphasis has shifted from quality family time to rushing from one store to the next spending monies we don’t necessarily have and putting ourselves in debt thinking all the shiny expensive gifts are a necessity. I cherished my memories and pined for those days back when, but I also know it’s time to look forward and create new memories for my own family and for that I am grateful.

 

A happy, safe, prosperous and wonderful Christmas holiday to everyone!

About the author

Carmen Lawrence