It’s unbelievable how quickly the second half of this year has flown by. It’s already December! Christmas lights and reindeer yard decorations are going up as quickly as the numbers on our bathroom scales. Some families are planning vacations together, while others are preparing to spend the holidays at home. Already, we’re debating about who’s making the mac-and-cheese and what presents we absolutely must have under the tree—or else!
This is the commonly accepted image painted of Christmas in Anglophone countries around the world, but it’s not a very accurate one. Not for all of us. In countries like Jamaica, we have a few embellishments passed down from generation to generation that make our celebration of Christmas unique. As a result, you’ll find this article helpful, if this Christmas you plan on doing any of the following:
- Inviting a Jamaican friend or spouse to dinner.
- Attending a Jamaican Christmas dinner.
- Spending Christmas in Jamaica.
- Would like to try something new by incorporating elements of the coolest culture ever into your own celebrations.
Now, how do you celebrate Christmas like a Jamaican? Well, let’s find out.
Abolish Santa Claus
Saint Nick is a popular favourite in many First-World Anglophone homes, where children are tricked for years into believing in some fat dude who slides down the chimney. Such trickery does not exist in Jamaica. I don’t know any Jamaican child who grew up believing in Santa Claus. Our parents worked way too hard to earn every Third-World penny to make our Christmas a happy one to then let some old White guy in a sled take all the credit.
My mother did allow my imagination to run wild with the Tooth Fairy and duppies (you say “ghosts”), so I’m thinking the anti-Santa-Claus ideology is mostly economic. And—just in case you’re wondering—I never felt like I missed out on believing in Santa Claus. I was always confused as to how American kids fell for a story like that.
Clean the House
Most (if not all!) Jamaicans grew up hearing the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. It was the line that justified the part of parenting that involved teaching kids to keep our living spaces clean and neat. As such, it was used to instill habits ranging from making the bed every morning to polishing the hardwood floors by hand with a dry coconut brush.
When Christmas comes around, this takes on new meaning. Every crevice, nook, and cranny that hasn’t seen the light of day will now be cleaned, sprayed, washed, scrubbed, and polished. This is also the time of year when many people do a power-wash on the outside of their homes or do a repainting. Parents and grandparents will then bring out their best crockery (you might say “china”), curtains, bed linen, and rugs. You won’t recognise your own home when they’re done!
Go Gift Shopping
This is probably changing now, but during my childhood, Jamaicans were more practical about giving gifts. I’m not saying we never got toys, but I am saying that you could bet your bottom dollar on getting new school shoes and church clothes. And yes, we were usually just as disappointed to receive these as children in First-World cities and suburbs who get pyjamas and socks. No one wants necessities on the day they’re expecting luxuries!
Jamaican parents also generally don’t bring you to the store to pick your gifts. They usually let us loose, purchase what they need while we’re distracted by talking robots and remote control cars, and then they come to get us. Then, we spend the whole ride home trying to figure out what we got. Gods forbid it’s new school shoes!
Going to “market” isn’t quite the same as going to the market to buy goods. Many people do get some last-minute shopping done at this time, especially grabbing ingredients for tomorrow’s feast. However, the main focus of “market” on Christmas Eve is just to enjoy the city and the city lights for the holidays.
When my family went to market, we usually did a little shopping. I could usually count on getting things like cotton candy, small toys and other treats. Sometimes if you were lucky, there would be a fair nearby with merry-go-rounds. I remember riding one somewhere in Montego Bay as a child, but have never heard tell of it as an adult.
Cook a Jamaican Feast
Christmas brunch and dinner in Jamaica is elaborate, especially when you consider we eat almost everything you eat and more. That means that in addition to chicken, turkey, fish, and ham, you can also expect additions like oxtail and ackee & saltfish. Because of this, grandmothers and parents get up long before the rest of us to get the cooking started.
It is fairly common in Jamaican households to skip breakfast and wait for brunch or dinner to be ready on Christmas Day. During this time, the younger household makes the bed, gets ready and then moves into the kitchen to help out. We are usually then available to greet new guests as they arrive, and will keep an eye on things, while our parents and grandparents take the opportunity to freshen up and get dressed.
Drink Jamaican Sorrel
I’m a heathen, so when I think of Christmas, the first thing that actually comes to mind is strong Jamaican sorrel with ginger and rum. There is not one Christmas in my entire 29 years that did not include this drink. Indeed, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. And just in case you’re wondering if there was rum in my sorrel as a child, the answer is probably yes. Unless Jamaicans are strict Christians or super conservative, we don’t make a lot of virgin sorrel. Let rum rain from the heavens!
Funny enough, I have no idea how to make sorrel. I’ve always gotten my share from family members and friends. However, you can find several recipes online. I’ve attached a video below for you. But, if like me, you hate tutorial videos, you can find the written recipe on her blog, here.
Eat Fruit Cake
Another staple of a Jamaican Christmas is fruitcake. Families make or buy this even though I know very few Jamaicans who can honestly say they love fruit cake. And, of course, we have to sprinkle some rum on the fruit cake, too. For most Jamaican children, this is our first taste of rum and is usually supervised by an adult. Again, unless the family is strictly Christian or super conservative, they are unlikely to make a virgin alternative.
Christmas in Jamaica is the time of year when family and friends come together to enjoy a single day of eating amazing food we probably can’t afford to splurge on during the rest of the year. As such, the food and that togetherness is what makes all the difference. Presents and even the religious component of Christmas take a backseat to those values. Have you ever been a part of a Jamaican Christmas before? What was it like?
If you are a Jamaican, then I’d love for you to get involved on Twitter with these crowdsourced articles I write about Jamaican culture. I’ve been crowdsourcing these articles for about a year now and I love the level of engagement within our community.
The feedback from fellow Jamaicans and their contribution adds a new level of authenticity I could not achieve on my own. The voice of one is interesting. The voice of the collective is when the magic truly takes place. Check out some of the responses I received on Twitter, below.
27 thoughts on “How to Celebrate Christmas Like a Jamaican (As Told by Jamaicans)”
*generally get pissed*
I absolutely love this post! I got told (when I asked in a very forth right manner) by a teacher that Santa did not exist when I was four. I didn’t trust my parents for a whole year (I just side eyed them lol). I do like the thought that kids have to at least not be dick heads all year to be rewarded though. My Ma spent her teens and twenties cooking for fam so when she had her own the three of us got it all frozen or fresh made by supermarket lol Manchester has Christmas markets where people generally get passed, eat and shop for their own prezzie! Oh and I get called ‘Dupy’ sometimes from random peeps cause of how freezing my hands always are. How can Jamaica & my U.K. be so similar. 💁🏻♀️
They’re so similar because there has been a mutual cultural exchange for years. It started with slavery and just never ended. Most Black people in the UK are from the West Indies and most West Indians abroad are Jamaican. We’re the 3rd largest island, so it adds up.
I think it’s still possible for children to understand they won’t get presents if they don’t behave well. I understood that the better grades I got and the less I got into trouble the more willing people were to give me everything I asked for. 😂
I think a lot of English people don’t think of Jamaicans/Africans/Australians/Brazilians etc. really doing much for Christmas (apart from exchanging gifts and/or going to church) as we associate it so much with Winter and everything that goes with that. Silly thought really! I agree and also the value of money and how hard their parents have to work for things.
I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve always wondered about Christmas in Australia during the summer. A lot of Jamaicans travel abroad for the Christmas holidays though. I spent mine in New York and Maryland during my preteen and early teen years.
They sound like two wonderful places to holiday at Christmas. Which did you prefer?
I always preferred Maryland over NYC. I’m not much of a city girl, I’m afraid!