Remembering Christmas in Jamaica a Long, Long Time Ago

Christmas is coming; the geese are getting fat… Do they still have geese in Jamaica? I remember the geese at Teacher Knight’s; they made a hissing noise as they chased us children across his yard. And the turkeys… not those anemic-looking white things we see on American TV, but big, bronze creatures with fluffed out feathers, iridescent in the sun. The tom turkey would push himself forward and make a thumping sound, then he would shake his bright red wattles and gobble with all his might.

Jamaica was magical back then – especially at Christmas. I wonder how it is today… I haven’t been back for many years… But I’m going back one day, I promise you.

Back when I was a boy, a long, long time ago, the Christmas season started about the middle of December and lasted until after New Year’s Day. It was a time for celebration, to look up old friends and make new ones, to eat, drink and be merry.

Do Jamaicans still go from house to house, tasting one another’s plum pudding and toasting the season with a glass of sorrel or wine? We believed it brought us luck .On Christmas Day in America, I still look expectantly up the road but no one ever comes by.

Sometimes, in preparation for Christmas, my parents would drive a hundred miles from Malvern to Kingston and take us shopping. We would hurry through the crowd, stopping at Nathan’s, Sasso’s and Hannah’s, where the scent of new fabric perfumed the air. There would be shoes to try on, clothes to get for school, presents to buy and hide when no one was looking…

The hustle-and-bustle was intoxicating, the stores jam-packed. Tramcars rattled along metal rails, powered by poles attached to overhead wires, sometimes setting off showers of sparks. Cart drivers yelled at their mules as they transported cargoes of coconuts (“water coconut, buy you’ water coconut!) across Parade, past the park with the big, root-draped banyan tree.

In the heat of the day, we would take a break from shopping, and drop into Kincaid’s soda fountain for a dusty sundae or a malted milkshake. Sometimes at night, after a busy day downtown, we children would walk from Aunt Aggie’s to Half-way Tree for Royal Cremo ice cream, and I would sit on her front step, eating it oh-so-slowly with a little wooden spoon that had a pleasant after-taste of its own. And the headlights would go to and fro along Constant Spring Road.

If we were lucky, there would be time for a trip to the Palace Theatre, the Movies or the air-conditioned Carib. I can still feel the Carib’s “smooth” air and see the giant bubbles in the décor. My father liked musicals, and over the years, we were treated to such delights as “Showboat,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “An American in Paris,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Singing in the Rain,” “Brigadoon” and several movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. To please my mother, we also saw some films with Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and other “dramatic” actresses, but I don’t remember them that well.

Back in the country, jon canoo bands would be dancing along the street, their drums and fifes making an eerie sound. I was afraid of the jon canoo dancers when I was very young. They wore intimidating masks - the Horsehead, the Devil, the King and the Queen… When they pranced up to me and demanded money, I would back away apprehensively. But my fear dissipated when I realized they could be placated with a “willie penny” or two.

On Christmas Day, of course, we children would have toys – tin whistles or fifes made from bamboo joints, “jumping men” manipulated by two long sticks and twine connecting their hands, shiny marbles, kites and wooden spinning tops that we called gigs. Sometimes we got wind-up racing cars, but most of our toys were hand-made, crafted from available materials and local ingenuity.

Then there were the firecrackers - squibs, thunderbolts and cherry bombs –  with Chinese characters on the gaudy tissue paper wrapping. You could hear them all over the countryside, and if you were close enough, you could smell the gunpowder. We used to put them under tin cans and gasp as the cans went spinning high in the air.

One Christmas, my mother wanted a tree like the ones she had seen in Saturday Evening Post. So we went out into the woods and cut a little tree, the wrong shape, of course, as there were no evergreens around, but a tree nonetheless.

She placed the presents under the tree, just as she had seen in the American magazine, and persuaded my father to dress up as Santa Claus and come and distribute them at midnight on Christmas Eve.

She cut out flowers and made colored streamers from crepe paper and crafted ornaments from bottle corks and other odds and ends. We had no electricity in the country at that time, so she placed tiny candles all over the tree, with frilled paper beneath them to catch the melted wax.

When the wax melted it set fire to the paper and the tree, and — as the weekly Jamaica Times reported in its Children’s Corner column - “Santa Claus had to make an unscheduled appearance to put out the blaze.”

That was Christmas in Jamaica long, long ago, when you didn’t have to have a lot of money to have a wonderful time.