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Christmas in Woodlands District in the Fifties

It was Really sinting!

Basil Waine Kong.

Growing up in St. Elizabeth is fraught with wonderful memories, especially of Christmas. As I look back, I see manicured lawns,(freshly chopped with a sharp machete or a donkey, horse or even goats) and gleaming white washed stones about six feet apart lining the walkways right up to the house steps. We even white washed the trunks of trees in the yard.

I have traveled the world and no where can make you feel more welcome as rural Jamaica. One of my most memorable welcomes occurred in Cameroon when a friend took four of us back to his homeland. As the car arrived, we were greeted by 100 colourfully dressed children waving and singing songs of welcome. As we entered the village, the elders greeted us in their finery with inspiring and eloquent remarks. They even gave us certificates making us honorable members of the Tikar People. We then sat down to eat with the elders. Afterwords, we were treated to a magnificent show with expert drummers and dancers. I even got into the act and showed them a few Jamaican moves. Ladies and gentlemen, we came by our music and dancing honestly. These are the roots of our soul. But being a Jamaican rootsman, there is no welcome more sublime than in Jamaican. I imagine Jamaicans flock home for Christmas just for that feeling of welcome, familiarity and belongingness. It’s nice that they bring presents for the pickney dem as well. We are a loving family.

The children were always on stage when I was a child. Not only did we perform regularly in school and church plays and concerts, we were always being coached in poetry, singing and dancing by Ms. Mavis Smith for “Festival” that was held in Santa Cruz each year. Whenever relatives and friends visited, we were asked to recite poems, tell a joke, spell words, sing or dance. One of the important jobs that adults joyfully accepted was to encourage and big up the youth with a heap of praise. Those of us who grew up in the country have great egos because we didn’t know we were poor or we even thought we were bulby. Children were front and center of the community and we felt loved. I started working in Mass Claudie’s shop at about ten years old and at our Saturday night dances, the older people enjoyed putting me up on the counter to dance and then give me money. The popular dances back then were: “Back to back, belly to belly”, “Banana, banana, banana”.

Many unfamiliar foods came to us by way of vans and visiting relatives and friends. We are a mountain community but we were able to enjoy lobsters, fish and even clams brought to us by vans. We got bread and bullahs from Harry Chen See’s bread truck. When you bought a whole loaf of unsliced hard dough bread, you got a brata of two bullahs. We would watch out for the passing of the truck, run to the roadside to hale the driver, bought the bread and put it into the bread basket that hung by a hook close to the ceiling. Our usual breakfast was a “hunk of bread with butter” and hot fresh cow’s milk. I liked my bread with sweet condensed milk! We ate whatever fruits were in season throughout the day from anyone’s property. Children had a free run of the place with not concern about property lines.

I am not sure that this is true for all families in Jamaica but for our family, we take food to everyone we visited and also took food back home from whatever was left over from a meal. In other words, we are always bring and taking food. We don’t like anyone to be hungry. If someone is going to America, a roast breadfruit, ache, corn pone and gizadas were in tow. When they returned, packed away in their luggage were canned pears and peaches packed in syrup, cookies and cakes.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, every household prepared sorrel with and without rum but with lots of ginger. I loved the beautiful red colour and tart taste. A roast (beef) and fruitcake would also be prepared to serve to all who visited. Aunt Myra’s roast was the best! The fruits (raisins, currants, plums) for the cake would be soaked in run and port wine for several months before baking day. I usually couldn’t wait for the cake so I would eat the batter. Those who really wanted to show off would also have a Christmas ham that was sliced as thin as a razor blade and treated like gold. The ham bone was used later for soup.

On Christmas Day, we woke up as soon as the first cock crowed. We got dressed and greeted each other with “Happy Christmas” and a smile. While we did not exchange presents on Christmas mornings, the first thing we looked forward to was Granny’s egg punch. She put on the milk to scold (heat up), break a dozen eggs and carefully separated the red (yolk)from the white. She handed the bowl with the yolk and brown sugar to Elton to grind and the whites with a few drops of water to Ronnie to whip with a fork. When the yolk was nice and creamy and the white was nice and fluffy, she combined them, added hot milk, a Guinness stout and a Red Stripe Beer, mixed it all up and served it for breakfast. wow!

Busha Price (Granny’s friend) would be at our house by 8:00 am all dressed up with suit, tie, handkerchief in his breast pocket, felt hat, black and white shoes and his walking stick and always had some small change, maybe a sixpence for us. After drinking some of Granny’s egg punch, we asked if he wasn’t going to wipe the egg punch from his fluffy mouth stash. He would tell us that he was just saving some for later.

After breakfast, Granny would give us our Christmas money and we headed out to the community pick nick at Shield’s Pon where vendors sold ice cream and fresco, grater cake, pound cake, jerk pork, fried fish, cane juice, peppermint sticks, and all the treats of Christmas. The old soldiers would march with wooden rifles, Herbie Arnold’s rumba band would play all day and while we never had an elaborate “Jankonoo”, someone would put on a horse head mask and dance around on stilts. The next week, all the Pickney dem built stilts and try to dance around on them like the Jankonoo man.

It was a day when everyone shared what they had and indulged: “Eat, drink and be merry” were the orders of the day. The women and children mostly drank the sorrel and ginger beer, but all the men got drunk and everybody danced. The rule was that all the men had to dance with all the women regardless of age so the old people would get into the act as well. But mostly, they just loved to see the young people have a good time. As everyone was in a festive mood and buying waters (rum) and Red Stripe Beer for each other. Brother Boogs would be staggering before noon but would keep on drinking until nightfall when he would sing his famous song on his way home:

“When I die; don’t you berry me at all; just lay my bones in alcohol; One bottle of beer, one to my head and one to my feet; just let the world dem know that mi bones can cure.”

We had a horse race with lots of betting and the day after Christmas, “Boxing Day”, we had a cricket match. By the way, like Ghana, we would greet each other with “Happy Christmas until New Years. We took the twelve days of Christmas literally unlike the United States where we stop our Christmas greeting by noon on Christmas day. There is something else that is unique: If you greeted someone with “Happy Christmas” a week before Christmas day, the receiver of the greeting predictably added: “When it comes”.

While no one ever dressed up like “Father Christmas”, all the children received balloons and noise makers that amused us for several days. And we didn’t have Christmas trees either; but our houses were decorated with poinsettias that grew wild in our community. Every Jack man shaved holding a two edge razor blade very gingerly,got their hair cut, their pants creased and their shoes shined. The ladies got their hair done, dressed up in fancy dresses and were awash with kuss kuss perfume. The girls put coconut oil on their legs and they looked amazing!

The Sunday closest to Christmas, we not only read the wonderful Christmas story but sang all the Christmas Carols at Springfield Moravian Church. As service lasted more than two hours, there was no hurry. My favorite Christmas Carol was “I saw three ships come sailing in” by Ms. Maude. We were also treated to a Christmas play on Sunday night directed by Mrs. Joyce Chang in which I always participated. For atmosphere, we put candles in oranges and lit up the place.

Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes, it brings good cheer! Happy Christmas Everybody!

Note. After all the young people migrated to England in the late fifties and early sixties, there was no more festivities and no more joy in our district! Our community became a community of old people raising their grand children.

Bullet Columnist Basil Waine Kong has written several pieces for this journal and especially likes to expound on his favorite subject: his beloved Jamaica. He is a former Atlien (resident of Atlanta GA), and was the CEO of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) for 22 years before his retirement in 2008 to return to Jamaica. This article is reprinted with his permission from his blogsite; Coming in From the Cold… Bob Marley

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