Generally I come to Jamaica to avoid Christmas all together. I’ve always had this “thing” about Christmas…at first it was something I was not to participate in…no lights, no tree, no decorating – no Santa. You see, Santa doesn’t come to Jewish homes and eat their cookies and leave presents under their non-existent tree. That used to really irritate me.
As I got older, my angst with the entire holiday season became stress and pressure related and it actually extended beyond just Christmas – I never particularly enjoyed Thanksgiving and New Years Eve became fun when I discovered that I never had to make plans as to what to do – the Grateful Dead played faithfully every year until 1993….then they stopped doing that when Bill Graham died, then Jerry died…you know the rest of this song. And all along, starting really just after Halloween right up until the “Silent Night” Christmas is thrown in your face every turn you make. Hideous Muzak Christmas tunes in every store. Obnoxious toy and gift commercials on TV. All anyone can talk about is what they are getting who and what they are hoping to get and and how broke they are because they have to get their five year old an IPod so he can have his IFish and yadda, ho ho ho, yadda.
So I escaped. To Jamaica. I’m not saying Christmas isn’t celebrated here – it is but it’s so NOT in your face that when it actually arrives it kind of takes you by a pleasant surprise.
Christmas – 2006
For us Christmas started to arrive in a slow wave with our neighborhood’s annual Christmas party for the children held at the Out of Town Pastry Shop just at the turn of West End Road, past the Lighthouse. It’s quite the party too – organized by the owner of the Pastry Shop, Colin and his wife Sharon, my dear friend Oya and a new dear friend I made, Connie. These folks work very hard to give the kids a wonderful time – they have cake a juice, Otto from up the road brings his accordian and plays German music for a while. My husband put on a wonderful magic show for them…and my friend Brainfreeze and Connie’s nephew were jammed all day painting the sweet little faces. The apex of the day is the arrival of Santa, usually in the back of a pick up truck, and each child gets an age appropriate present. Again, God Bless Connie and Oya – for weeks prior to the event these two are making trips into Sav La Mar (the closest “city” to Negril where the shopping is plentiful and inexpensive) buying toys, then wrapping them. The day is just delightful, the entire neighborhood shows up and, as with every GREAT Jamaican neighborhood party there is always a sound system so the party extends into the night.
Christmas Eve we were invited to a home via some friends of ours. We did not know these people but were told again, it’s a neighborhood type of party but just a little deeper west than our immediate neighborhood. As we walked into this magnificent home that sits right on the sea we were greeted by our host…Connie! Yes, the Connie who organizes the children’s party. My heart filled with joy – it’s always nice to know your host and as it turns out most of the people at the party I knew or had met the day before. Connie is the “Pizza Queen” of the Pacific Northwest, owning and operating 13 pizza shops from Seattle to Mountain View. The party was a make your own pizza party using her own pizza dough recipe – this New York girl is VERY PICKY about pizza – I won’t eat it in California, it’s a why bother kind of thing…and her pizza crust was the absolute best I’ve had bar only a select few parlors in Manhattan. Her daughter, who runs one of her stores, was tossing that dough into perfect 12” disks…and then it was up to us to top those lovelies! The spread of toppings included traditional mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, olives, green pepper as well as Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Calalloo. The food and company were marvelous and we all walked home with belly and heart full.
Christmas Day started off early as we jumped in Niah’s van and headed to Montego Bay to pick up the remainder of the Rotten Posse…our god-daughter, her boyfriend and our friend from Ohio. Turns out all three were on the same delayed flight – an unexpected surprise but at least no one had to wait too long for anyone else. After a brief clean-up the entire posse, complete except for one vacationing member in Los Angeles piled into the van and went to our friend’s place at HeartBeat. The spread was marvelous and again a fusion of Jamaican and North American cuisine…Robin Banks, a local blues singer here in Negril made a most AWESOME roasted turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes – our hostess prepared the Sail Fish someone had pulled out of the water than morning three different ways served up with Yam and Calalloo. Sufficiently toasted on Christmas cocktails it turns out our night was just beginning – there was a town party in Orange Hill and the Count Lebbe Band was playing. Some of us bailed, most of us rallied.
Into the van again and we went off to Orange Hill with Niah, Orange Hill born and bred. Orange Hill is a small town south of Negril, up and over Mount Airy, on the way to Little Bay. Orange Hill is a prosperous town. Let’s put it this way..it’s the Garberville CA of Jamaica. Just about the entire town was out when we rolled up, all greeting our driver, all greeting us. Friendly, happy, dancing…the sound system blaring, people of all ages dancing. There were several jerk chicken stands set up, the little store at the center of town was selling beer and rum like crazy. Niah took me by the hand and brought me across the street to meet HIS posse, his boys that he grew up with which includes Ricky Jackson, owner of Coral Seas Hotels and Coral Seas Cable Television. He was so proud and I was so proud… that he was so proud to have me as a friend.
At about midnight the Count and his band came out and we rocked down…everyone, young and old, were dancing right there in the street. One particular old gentleman caught my eye – he was dressed to the nines including the spats on his shoes and he just boogied down. This is Christmas celebrated the way I like it – home town style.
The spirit is alive and well in Jamaica and the celebration always starts with Connie’s Kids Christmas event held the last two years at the Lighthouse.
Connie works her butt off the pull off this wonderful event for the children of Negril, particularly the West End…she arranges for rides to pick up kids and their parents and organizes a slew of volunteers – Bubbles and Lorraine were on cupcakes and ice cream – Eezebrain and Coco were busy painting faces – Les, as always was the roving magician. I even took my turn behind the camera taking pictures of the little ones sitting on Santa’s lap until the “real” photographer jumped in.
I was amazed to see how great an attendance there was – at least a hundred kids with their families. Coco and Eezebrain were surrounded by little faces wanting tattoos and art painted on them – cats, butterflies even Spider Man. As Les moved about the crowd, performing magic trick after magic trick the children were just delighted…often making him repeat the trick in the event they might “get it” and see the trick within the trick…some were just satisfied with the idea of magic being magic.
Bubbles was up to her elbows in ice cream…literally sticky all over. And by the end of the day there was not a drop left. Lorraine had it a bit easier with the cupcakes but again, by the end not a one left.
This year the audience was treated to a short musical performance by the Negril “chorus”. They stood on a stage decorated with a banner that said “South Pole”.
South Pole? Doesn’t Santa live on the North Pole? Apparently not, according to Jamaicans. Their Santa comes from the South Pole.
Santa arrives with much fanfare and there is a push to the stage. Peg and I are enlisted to try to do some crowd control but this crowd has a definite mob mentality…an eagerness to see and be with Santa and get the presents! It is organized fairly well with kids being called up to the stage by age group…I was enlisted for a short time to take picture of the kids with Santa but found myself constantly having to insist the crowd behind me (kids and adults alike!) move back so I could get my shot.
The setting for the party could not be better – the main area is covered by a large tent but the grounds at the Lighthouse are expansive and the sea views remarkable.
Even with this prelude, Christmas does sneak up on us. That week found me working a lot at her computer organizing stuff for jobs coming up in early January. Bill announces that he will be hosting a Christmas dinner at his place…his list grows to 40 people and he is getting anxious. Cooking chores are doled out – he has a turkey that he will have Kitty prepare– Peg has a Jamaican raised organic turkey coming to her from Jube which she will prepare along with her mother’s famous dressing and six, count ‘em SIX pumpkin pies…Les and I agree to do potatoes, my grandmothers’ “Nice String Beans” and my famous Calalloo Dip. Other folks are making other things – I assure Bill on a regular basis that it’s all going to be all right and that next Christmas we will all go to Cuba.
Bills party was big – just about the expected 40 people and the food plentiful and for the most part pretty good! The turkeys to some were a disappointment – while Kitty did the best she knew how she’s not a cook…and she kind of blew Peg’s mom’s stuffing for that particular bird in the process. Peg was presented with a turkey that she thought looked more like the Road Runner character in the cartoon. I thought it was quite good – as opposed to a North American raised turkey though it’s a matter of taste preference. The Jamaican turkey was definitely gamier and tougher – more like a wild North American turkey would be. But Peg did her mom proud with the dressing…both in and out of the bird. All in all it was a lovely evening in the yard…I spent the “dessert time” sitting in the Palapa with Yasmin just chatting away. They even had the opportunity to light Hannukah candles earlier in the evening just at around sunset – the first and only time that entire holiday.
Christmas – 2009
Sad but true – there were no Christmas parties for the kids this year, either in Negril or Little Bay. Uncle Sam’s death ended that tradition for Little Bay – and Connie, well she just got burnt out in preparation for what became a huge undertaking – and no one else stepped up to helm the project.
So 2009 was, thankfully, a quiet Christmas. Even though we did not make it to Cuba as promised the year before, Bill did do another dinner – this time much smaller to include only his family in for the holidays, his neighbors in the yard and a few other friends from outside the yard. We ate poolside and feasted on traditional foods: an imported North American Turkey, all the trimmings and of course, Peg’s Pumpkin Pie. At least she didn’t have to make six of them this year. It was a lovely and comfortable time, we were able to mingle with everyone and enjoy the holiday and the setting we were in.
Christmas – 2010
Christmas morning starts out with a walk down Hylton Ave. for a visit with Dugsie, Winsome and their family. We actually do this just about every year – Peg brings them a cheesecake for their supper. This year Winsome had fallen ill, very ill. We were afraid we were going to lose her very soon. I’d not had the opportunity to visit with her until then – I arrived just a couple of weeks earlier sporting a cold and did not want to take the chance of compromising her immune system any more than it already was.
When we arrived we found Winsome sitting in her yard, looking remarkably well! She’d had some good news from the last doctor she’d visited and was very hopeful. Her appetite was back and she was all smiles. The household was, as always, in preparation for the large holiday supper. The family is in from all points in the world. Dugsie and her family are preparing chicken, stew pork and of course – goat. Much like the African tradition, Jamaican families often purchase a Ram Goat and slaughter it for the holiday table. The meat is generally prepared curried – then there’s the soup. Mannish Water is more commonly known as “Goats Head Soup” but basically contains all the parts of the goat you cannot curry – the innards, the head…you get my drift. Dugsie’s pot of Mannish Water is simmering on an open flame in the yard. The goat’s head is sitting in a buck by the tree, its blank eyes staring up at us as if knowing and accepting its fate. On that same tree hangs the goat’s skin – curing for its use as a drum head or whatever else goat skin is used for. No part of the animal is wasted. We wish Dugsie and Winsome a Merry Christmas “Jamaican Style” – “Happy Christmas…when it come.”
Our evening plans are similar to the previous year except we actually have to leave the yard. We are invited to a small celebration at our friend’s home on Westland Mountain Road. I’m in charge of Potato Salad – Peg, well, as usual, Pumpkin Pie. She has gained, no earned, the reputation for the best Pumpkin Pie – all from scratch, she hand picks the “right” Jamaican pumpkin for the job and prepares the light and flaky pastry dough by hand.
Our friend’s yard is a beauty – lush gardens, surrounded by many varieties of Banana Trees. It is a small group and we start the evening off not knowing anyone but our host. There’s a mix of North American and British guests and the fare is “expat” – turkey, dressing…even cranberry sauce. We pass the evening nicely, chatting with our new friends. Christmas has once again come and gone and we gear up for the rest of the holiday week.