A very special Christmas

Pitchy Patchy, one of the Jamaica Junkanoo characters

For enslaved persons in the Caribbean, Christmas was about the only respite they had in the calendar year. For that reason alone, Christmas has always been a big deal in Jamaica, going back centuries.

Christmas was the occasion of Jamaica’s most consequential protest movement, the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, otherwise known as the Baptist War.

Sam Sharpe, it is alleged, was convinced the queen of England had given freedom to the enslaved but it was being withheld by the Jamaican colonialists. He led a sit-down strike during Christmas 1831, which turned violent after the planter class responded with brutal force. By May 1832 more than 500 of the enslaved, including Sharpe, were executed, but the entire affair hastened the end of slavery, which was abolished by law in 1834 and overturned by 1838.

So, Christmas has been etched deep into the psyche of Jamaicans – the only period of real respite and break they had during slavery, and the beginning of the most important protest that led to freedom from slavery.

No wonder, therefore, that Jamaicans take Christmas very seriously. The celebration begins at least a week before December 25, and really ends only after January 1. Never, ever, seek to conduct any serious business between these dates. Other than financial institutions and retail stores, shops, markets and street side vendors, not much happens otherwise. It is time to let one’s hair down and let loose.

It is perhaps rightly termed “silly season,” for persons do crazy stuff. They drive faster and more recklessly, drink far more and much earlier in the day, and spend what they do not have. That is the time of year Jamaicans go into debt, and it is the time of year that you would want to get your “partner draw” to get spending money.

And this is actively encouraged. As a young man, just shortly out of high school, I worked in the bank for a short while. At Christmastime, I carried home far more liquor than I knew what to do with, all offered by bank clients. And I was a mere bank clerk! What was a teetotaler 19-year-old, newly baptized into the church and not knowing much about drinking, to do with seven bottles of expensive liquor (expensive for me at least), including Jonnie Walker Black and some well-aged, Appleton Reserve Blend?

My father told us this story, which I’m sure is apocryphal. He saw an acquaintance after the new year and asked him, “How was the Christmas?” The man said it was the best Christmas he had ever had. “I was drunk from Christmas Eve right through to New Year’s Day.”

Loving Christmas

A Jamaica Christmas Grand Market scene

But I must confess. Like the typical Jamaican, I absolutely love Christmas. The colors, the sounds, the vibes. Nothing beats Christmas in Jamaica. To really know it, feel it, experience it, one must attend Grand Market on Christmas Eve night. In most towns and cities, shoppers (revelers?) walk the streets in their hundreds and in their thousands, vendors spread their wares bazaar-style in the open on sidewalks and on pavements, and people come out in their funniest, or nicest, or sexiest casual outfits. It is at Grand Market you will meet persons you have not seen in years, in decades, and you catch up on old times. You walk a hundred paces and you meet up on another old friend, or classmate, or former coworker.

A Jamaica Gleaner report in 1866 reported on one such market scene in Kingston. “The market this year was numerously attended, by the beauty and fashion of the city. Long before dawn it was thronged with persons felicitating each other on the happy return of the season.”

Christmas is family time. When your relatives who have moved away and live overseas or in other Jamaican towns and cities visit, bringing gifts and goodies, and when the most sumptuous and expensive meal of the year is cooked and served at home.

People who live in rural areas raised goats and pigs and prized chickens to be slaughtered and cooked at Christmastime. A virtual feast. In many homes, it is the only occasion when certain china and silverware are used during the year.

It was the one time in the year when my mother and Mrs. Small would bake, whipping up more than half a dozen Christmas cakes, with us children helping to mix the batter. The prize? Being able to lick the spoons and the basins and the buckets in which the batter was mixed.

A revered tradition has lost popularity, but I gather is still practiced in some communities – caroling. Early in the morning, from as early as 5:00 or 5:30, church folk walk the community and sing carols, stopping before various residences and singing in loud and exuberant cadences, sometimes provocatively so, knowing that the occupants were not particularly welcoming of the predawn intrusion. A tradition that continues, especially in the older, mainline, more traditional churches, is Christmas morning worship service.

And of course, there were the Junkanoo bands of various colorful characters that would parade through the streets, playing musical instruments, dancing and prancing. According to Nadya-Kaye Phillips, “this band of comical, and sometimes scary, characters dates back to the days of slavery, when it was one of the few festivities that was allowed on plantations.”

While there is dispute as to the origin, some researchers credit Junkanoo to the Igbo people from out of West Africa, a view given credence by the practice of Junkanoo in Jamaica, Bahamas and parts of Virginia in the United States, where there were significant presence of Igbo people and their descendants.

Children were deathly scared of these Junkanoo characters. Pitchy Patchy, Police Man, Belly Woman, and especially Horse Head with his lance. Some Junkanoo bands included the Royal Court, caricatures of the British Royal family.

 Michael Scott, writing in the early 1800s, said of the Junkanoo:

Their character hovers somewhere between that of a harlequin and a clown, as they dance about, and thread through the negro groups, quizzing the women and slapping the men; and at Christmas time, the grand negro carnival, they don’t confine their practical jokes to their own colour, but take all manner of comical liberties with the whites equally with their fellow bondsmen.

Jamaica’s Christmas has always been special. This is neither new nor novel. In the Falmouth Gazette in January 1882, a visitor to the island made the following observation of Jamaica at Christmastime:

I was most agreeably surprised to see, instead of a crowd of roughs, an immense gathering of people of all classes and hues, such as I had never in all my travels in many countries seen before. It was, in truth, a real Carnival, eclipsing, for splendour and order, and kindly displays of earnest good feelings, any similar gathering I had met in dear England, or in France, Italy, Germany, or America.

A menu forged from adversity

Jamaican women selling sweets and desserts in Kingston, 1899. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Jamaicans who live outside the island keep in touch with home by various means. Two of the more popular are its music – reggae and dancehall – and its cuisine.

Jamaicans living in New York City, South Florida and other places such as southern Maryland and Philadelphia, have it easier than those of us who live elsewhere in the United States in being able to access Jamaican food and ingredients. Jamaican and West Indian stores and restaurants can be readily found in those areas. The rest of us must be a little bit more creative, or buy the very same stuff at a higher price than can be had at lower cost elsewhere. Thankfully, some of what we use are available in stores aimed at the Latino market, suggesting similarities in taste, if not in menu.

Some Jamaicans who were not adept in the kitchen learned their way around the stove and oven once they left home. I’m a testament to this, so are my brothers. Granted, I knew how to cook various Jamaican meals, but it is upon living in the United States that my family’s longing for Jamaican food led me to develop the art of baking. Yes, I now bake a mean Christmas cake, a Christmas cake to die for. And, after several tries, I’ve now got the hang of the Easter bun. Jamaican carrot cake, banana bread, coconut bread and cornmeal pudding as well. When I’m in the mood I’ll do a Jamaican hard dough bread but I’ve tried grater cake and coconut drops without much success. I’m not yet brave enough to try baking Jamaican patty.

An American expatriate living in Jamaica once told me that Jamaican food is boring. He was referring to the limited menu in most restaurants he frequented, mainly jerk, some curry goat, perhaps oxtail, and little else. If he was adventurous enough, and if Jamaican eateries were more expansive and creative, he would not have come to such premature conclusion.

Cultural influences
Jamaican food is derivative of various cultures – Taino and West Africa, Spanish and English, Indian and Chinese – four continents. Plus, unique recipes arising from the vicissitudes and experiences of enslavement. A menu with such a varied background and rich combination can neither be limited nor boring. “The marriage of these diverse cultures ultimately created variations which have evolved into the ultimate Jamaican menu,” wrote Aaron Fodiman and Margaret Word Burnside in the May/June 1995 issue of Tampa Bay Magazine.

The contribution of enslaved persons to the Jamaican menu is particularly telling, arising as it did out of adversity and necessity. Having been fed the worst food, they learned to “tun dem han an mek fashin.”

This contrasts with how the slavers and planters lived that even an upper-class English woman was shocked by it all. Lady Maria Nugent, wife of the newly appointed governor to Jamaica, who was of a privileged background in England, was aghast at the opulence and gluttony of the local planter class. On her trip around the island in 1802, she described what was offered for one meal – breakfast:

Such eating and drinking I never saw! Such loads of all sorts of high, rich, and seasoned things, and really gallons of wines and mixed liquors as they drink! I observed some of the party, today, eat of late breakfasts as if they had never eaten before – a dish of tea, another of coffee, a bumper of claret, another large one of hock-negus; then Madeira, sangaree, hot and cold meat, stews and fries, hot and cold fish pickled and plain, pepper, ginger sweetmeats, acid fruit, sweet jellies – in short, it was all as astonishing as it was disgusting.

The enslaved, on the other hand, used the chicken back and feet as well as the feet, head, tail, skin, organs and entrails of cattle, pigs and goats to make something new and different. These were the “fifth quarters” of the animals that the masters, overseers and leaders in Jamaican slave society did not want.

Roots and tubers such as yams, potatoes, coco, dasheen, badu and cassava were used, much of that knowledge brought over from Africa, some inherited from the Taino.   The enslaved became creative with herbs and plants such as callaloo and nettles; and staples such as ackee, breadfruit, banana, plantain and coconut. They knew how to supplement the meal, when “salting” (meat) was short, with susumba, chocho, cabbage, greens and bok (pok) choy. They learned to flavor their food and make it presentable with pimento, scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, annatto and other condiments and spices.

There were some items that were the basic ingredient in many meals and pastries. Cornmeal was a staple in porridge, dumplings, duckunoo and pudding; coconut in rice and peas, rundown (rundung), toto, gizzada, grater cake and drops.

When masters had their English tea, Jamaicans boiled and drank their bush tea: peppermint, black mint, fever grass, cerasee and many more. Irish moss, strong back and tan pani were for special purposes.

Nowadays the food forged out of such hardships are delicacies. Rice and flour have largely supplanted roots and tubers, cornmeal and the coconut in the Jamaican daily diet. The beverages, hot and cold, are so rare as to be forgotten.

There is consensus as to where some of Jamaica’s favorite dishes come. There is uncertainty as to others, while there are discrepancies about some.

Barbecue and bammy, it is said, were learned from the Tainos (while I was in school in the seventies we called them Arawak). The Spanish brought along stew peas while escoveitch fish derived from the Spanish Jews, who were among the early settlers after Columbus landed in Jamaica. The Scots gave us porridge and everyone agrees that curry dishes were the direct influence of indentured workers from India, though some claim curry was introduced into Jamaica by the British through their colonization of India.

Duckunoo, otherwise known as blue drawer’s or tie-a-leaf, was unmistakably West African. It is a simple item to make but not everyone can do it well. It takes much finesse and some skill, both in getting the mixture exactly right and doing the wrapping properly.

Jamaica’s most famous form of cooking, jerk, was a gift from the Maroons. The Jamaica Foodie blog asserts:

The popular method known as jerk can be traced to pre-slavery Coromantee, hunters of West African (sic). These hunters would roast pork over hot coals in earthen pots that were covered with patas-stands made of green pimento or other branches. The jerk pork would then be cooled, stored and re-heated when needed.

The Kitchen Project blog claims:

Using salt, peppers and spices they (Maroons) learned to preserve the meat. … The meat was spiced and wrapped in leaves to keep. When it came time to cook it they just placed it all in with hot rocks then covered or it was BBqued over a lattice of wood. … This evolved with the use of different spices to the cooking style that we know today as Jerk.

But the sources differ as to where Jamaica’s favorite lunch item comes from. Some claim the Jamaican patty was brought over by the English, whereas others say it is a legacy of the Chinese, who started arriving in Jamaica in 1849 as indentured laborers. Rice and peas supposedly had its early iteration in India, though some insist it is the variation of a meal from out of West Africa. Some declare that the once popular pepperpot was learned from the Tainos, while others give it a West African origin.

In more recent times, Rastafarians have influenced Jamaican cooking, largely eschewing the use of salt and pork while emphasizing “natural” and vegetarian diets.

A three-legged  iron pot. The very big ones would be used for a large extended family or during a community event. Courtesy of Jamaica National Heritage Trust

Back in the day, Jamaicans had some cooking items and implements that those under-30 may know little, or nothing of. With the increasing use of more modern kitchen wares and items, these have, for the most part, fallen into disuse. Those who grew up in rural Jamaica up until the 1970s can recall such items as the three-foot pot, the grater, the mortar and pestle, and the wooden turn stick, which were used in West African cooking.

The coal stove (in some parts they call it coal pot) was quite possibly the most important item in the kitchen, or in the backyard where much cooking was done. It was either this or the woodfire on which much roasting was done, and on which the three-foot or -legged pot was most ideal.

Jamaican cuisine is at its best at Christmastime. That’s when sorrel is traditionally on the menu, though, for the past few years, it is available commercially throughout. Christmas cake or Christmas pudding are a must. That’s when ham is eaten, if at no other time of year. And the best meal with the choicest meat and the best china and silverware are spread on the table. A rich feast.