Jamaican Christmas Traditions
What I enjoy most about Christmas - in Jamaica and at home - are the unique traditions in our cultures and histories that make us who we are, and that celebrate the things the season represents - family, faith, community, generosity and love. Jamaican Christmas traditions celebrate all of these things, but you'll have to look beyond the obvious!
If you're visiting Jamaica during the holidays, you'll probably find that today's Jamaican Christmas is nearly as commercialized as Christmas in the U.S., Canada and Europe. If you manage to escape from the all-inclusive resorts, however, don't expect to see as many Christmas lights, artificial snow, trees and other decorations as you might see at home. But be ready to eat, drink and be merry!
Jamaicans are predominately Christians, so the Christmas holidays are special. Many Jamaican Christmas traditions have British colonial influences, as well as African, Indian, Spanish, and other cultural influences that have given the nation its rich diversity. Some traditions, like Jonkonnu, have faded, but you may still see a performance here and there.
Here are a few a few things to look for and a little about the history/origins of each.
(Click on the numbered sections at the bottom to continue. You will see this introduction on every page, so please scroll down the page to keep reading!)
Jamaican Grand Market Night
On Christmas Eve (December 24th), Jamaicans look forward to "Gran Market," which may be the most important day of their Christmas season. It's a day-and-night affair, and often the festivities go on until the wee hours of Christmas morning.
Grand Market can trace its origins to slavery. Historians tell us that slaves were given few days off from work, and Christmas Eve was one of them. They would dress up in their nicest clothes, meet up with friends in a central place, and sing, dance, play drums and socialize until morning. It was also an opportunity for some of them to sell their homemade crafts, such as woven baskets, straw hats and brooms.
Jump to the 20th century, to the days before trucks and buses were commonplace, and imagine the colorful sight of vendors from the country carrying their fruits, vegetables and flowers to sell at Gran' Market. Bottle torches lit up the darkness of Christmas Eve morning as they moved along with "bankra" (baskets woven from palm leaves) on their heads, filled with fresh bananas, oranges, tangerines, callaloo, okra, scallions, tomatoes and more. Donkeys carried hampers full of "hard food", like potatoes, breadfruit and yams, as well as bundles of red sorrel (more about sorrel below) and, of course, roses, bougainvilla, hibiscus and other colorful flowers.
Although Grand Market has evolved from those days, and you're more likely to see vendors transporting their goods in trucks, it's still a big deal. In many towns, vendors (called "higglers") are allowed to converge on the town or village square where they set up their wares in the road, leaving walkways for shoppers.
Grand Market is great fun for children, and may be the only evening in the year that most parents let their children stay out past 9PM. They enjoy seeing all of the toys, games and clothes for sale, the local bands and sound systems, and get to make as much noise as they want! And everyone gets to enjoy the street food - jerk chicken, fry fish, pineapple, sugar cane, jelly water, the peanut vendors and the ice cream man.
When I was at Grand Market in Port Antonio a few years ago, we walked and shopped, and walked and ate, and enjoyed the fun, laughter and friendliness. Even the KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) was open until long past midnight!
WHERE TO GO: Enjoy Grand Market celebrations on Christmas Eve in and around Coronation Market (downtown Kingston), Half Way Tree (Kingston), Musgrave Market (Port Antonio, Portland), Browns Town Market (Browns Town, St. Ann), Linstead Market (Linstead, St. Catherine), Old Harbour (St. Catherine), May Pen Market (May Pen, Clarendon), Savanna la Mar Market (Savanna la Mar, Westmoreland), Port Maria Market (Port Maria, St. Mary), on Harbour Lane (Falmouth, Trelawny), at Sam Sharpe Square (Montego Bay, St. James), and various other places around the island. Keep in mind that vehicle traffic is often restricted on this night.
In the joyous spirit of Christmas, do a good deed and find something to buy to support the local vendors! Times are hard, and they count on this income to feed their children and provide a Christmas for their own families.