Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world, so it’s not surprising that Christmas is one of the most important religious and cultural celebrations. Festivities run from early December to New Year’s Day, with non-stop parties and family gatherings. Despite the distinct lack of snow and chimneys, Santa Claus still visits Jamaica and gift giving is part of the tradition. Here’s how to celebrate a tropical Christmas Jamaican style.
The temperature drops slightly as the ‘crismus breeze’ arrives in early December, making things more comfortable and marking the start of the season. Towns and cities create a festive atmosphere by decorating the streets and palm trees with brightly colored Christmas lights known locally as ‘pepper lights’. Houses in affluent neighborhoods compete to create the best light displays, and even local taxis are decorated.
Christmas trees are everywhere; the plastic kind may dominate, but locally grown Blue Mountain pines are more elegant. Grown high up in the lush mountains, they are a softer, lighter alternative to the Norwegian pine. It is also traditional to decorate the home with bright red Poinsettias at Christmas. They’re so popular that it can be necessary to pre-order them months in advance.
The long standing tradition of ‘Gran Market’ is one of the biggest days of the year for many Jamaicans – especially children. From Christmas Eve until Christmas morning, vendors gather to sell their wares at key locations around the country. Festivities continue through the night into the early hours of Christmas morning, keeping shoppers entertained. The best Gran Market in Jamaica is found in Linstead, St Catherine. It is a shoppers’ paradise, offering the opportunity to buy everything from last-minute gifts and Christmas decorations to clothing and food. However, many people attend just to enjoy the party atmosphere.
The traditional masquerade party of ‘John Canoe’ or Jonkanoo is one of the highlights of ‘Gran Market’. It involves people dressing up and wearing masks while dancing though the streets to accompanying music. The Jonkanoo tradition came to Jamaica with slaves from Africa and was once popular across the island. Now it is more confined to the rural areas.
Christmas Day starts with a traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee & saltfish, breadfruit and boiled bananas. Families will normally then attend church. Mass is an important aspect of Christmas for most Jamaicans, who turn out in their ‘Sunday best’ for this special day. Christmas mass is a joyous celebration with enthusiastic carol singing and hand clapping. Steel drums and reggae versions of popular Christmas songs give an unmistakably Caribbean feel to the day.
Christmas dinner is a big event that brings family and friends together to celebrate and feast. Roast turkey is notably absent from most Jamaican dinner tables and replaced with curried goat, roast chicken and a much-loved ham. Rice and peas take on a Christmas twist, being made with pigeon peas instead of red kidney beans. The food is accompanied by that seasonal favourite drink Sorrel – usually made with a generous portion of rum. The traditional dessert of rum-laden fruit cake finishes the meal.
The party starts again in Kingston on Boxing Day with the National Pantomime performance of The Upsies and de Downzies dem . The Little Theatre Movement, a Jamaican institution, held its inaugural panto on December 26th, 1941 and has done so annually ever since. This Christmas show is a celebration of Jamaican culture, folklore and history.
The famous dancehall show, Sting (no relation to Sting of Police fame), also takes place on Boxing Day evening. For dancehall fans everywhere, this is unmissable. The show usually starts at 8pm but the real entertainment rarely begins before midnight. In short, December is non-stop party season with all kinds of celebrations taking place, from beach parties to huge public sound system events and everything in between.