Here are some unique Caribbean holiday traditions that you’ve probably never heard of before…
It’s that time of year again…time for Christmas carols, snowman building, and family feasts. And while you may be dreaming of a “white Christmas” thanks to fresh snowfall, folks in the Caribbean look forward to relaxing on soft, white sand.
The Caribbean is a unique place, bursting with lush tropical rainforests, mysterious mountain caverns, and sandy beaches that stretch on for miles. The Christmas traditions of the region are just as unique, thanks to wide racial and cultural diversity.
There are so many reasons to visit the Caribbean during the holiday season, so we’ll save those for another time. However, one of the biggest reasons to go in December is so that you’ll have the chance to take part in unique Christmas traditions. Here are some of our favorites:
Unique Caribbean Holiday Traditions
Caroling…all night long
This fun twist on traditional caroling mimics the route that the biblical Joseph and Mary followed in Bethlehem as they searched for a place to stay the night. Mary was nearly ready to give birth, but unfortunately there was no room in the town inn. They ended up in makeshift quarters in a stable or cave where animals were kept.
Parrandas are groups of carolers that parade through the streets and stop at different homes along the way, in memory of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. They usually plan their routes in advance, stopping at the homes of people they know. However, they may not show up at a specific hour, instead surprising the occupants by breaking into spontaneous song. Unlike the solemn style of acapella caroling favored by those in the United States, parrandas can often be highly spirited and lively.
Participants often play guitars, flutes, and portable percussion instruments like the guiro to accompany the songs. After the songs, the inhabitants of each house invite the singers inside for a meal, a snack, or something to drink at the very least. Depending on how many houses they plan on visiting that night, the parranda group may not stay very long at each home. Families, churches, youth groups, and schools often plan parrandas together.
A White (Sand) Christmas
An old tradition on the Caribbean Cayman islands involves taking the finest white sand off a nearby beach and spreading it across the front lawn to create a “sand yard”. Sometimes, locals would gather pink conch shells and add them as decorations, or create patterns in the sand with brooms. Called “backing sand”, the tradition is thought to have been started by Scottish immigrants who missed the snow of their homeland.
Backing sand isn’t as widely practiced as it once was. However, you may still see sand yards on Christmas Day at the oldest island houses. Traditionally, the sand is left on the yard in piles until Christmas Eve. At this point, the inhabitants sweep it across the yard, decorate it with shells, and participate in a competition with neighbors for the loveliest white lawn.
On December 2nd, locals in St. Vincent begin celebrating a Christmas tradition unique to their island. Said to have begun over a hundred years ago, the “Nine Mornings” festival most likely originated with the Catholic religion. However, it has evolved into a lively secular festival for all, no matter their beliefs.
Nine days before Christmas, Vincentians wake up early to walk the streets, dance to music in parades, or take a bath in the sea. They purchase ginger and sorrel drinks from street vendors, along with holiday snacks and candy. Sometimes groups of carolers will go from house to house to serenade the inhabitants with Christmas tunes.
The Nine Mornings tradition began around 1913, when a local Catholic church began to hold early morning church services nine days before Christmas. As the parishioners made their way home, they would often stop to greet friends and wish them a merry Christmas. This evolved into a kind of procession, and soon, they added music to turn the procession into a parade.
“Soon it became customary for the ‘boom drum’ bands, composed of musician playing goatskin drums and wooden flutes, to accompany the walkers home,” Michael Peters, chairman of the National Nine Mornings Committee told Caribbean Life. “Street dancing, of course, was soon to follow, and, in time, the character of the nine mornings’ celebration changed.”
Double Pay for Christmas
In the Dominican Republic, there’s a law that requires employers to provide their employees with an extra month’s pay in December. Referred to as the “salario de Navidad” or “Christmas salary”, it makes the holiday spending season a bit more bearable for islanders. It allows people to spend less time working and more time with their families. Employers must pay this extra salary by December 20th.
A similar tradition exists in Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, and a few other Latin American countries, called the aguinaldo. In other countries, it may be referred to as the “thirteenth salary”. In the United States, employers sometimes provide their employees with a “Christmas bonus”. However, unlike the Dominican Republic, many countries don’t require employees to provide a Christmas bonus by law.
The Junkanoo festival in the Bahamas begins on Boxing Day (December 26th). Revelers parade through the streets in colorful, elaborate costumes while bands play trumpets and drums. The tradition hails from colonial days and the time of slavery, when African slaves were brought to the Bahamas by European traders. Owners gave their slaves three days of Christmas vacation, which they turned into a celebration. They donned colorful masks and costumes, walked on stilts, and paraded from house to house.
Although the Junkanoo tradition died out with the abolition of slavery, it has been revived in modern times. Today, young and old participate in early morning parades (2 am to 10 am), dance fests, and competitions.
The Bahamas isn’t the only country to celebrate Junkanoo. Similar festivals and parades take place all across the English-speaking Caribbean. However, they sometimes go by other names, such as Jonkonnu.
Main image: Travelink
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