The heart beat of Caribbean Christmas: joy and pain

A Caribbean Christmas presents some problems that don’t exist everywhere.

Many people head to church on Christmas Eve, late at night, knowing that they are going to be up way past the time when Santa comes calling at their homes. They go to what’s called ‘midnight mass’, starting at 10.30 pm, with the service just getting going when Christmas Day starts. This is the season of ‘The Sermon to end all sermons’. The theme has to be big, and bring them all to the knees begging forgiveness before they head home to see what The Bearded One has dropped under the tree. “Slackness” was a familiar theme some years ago–girls in skirts up to their necks; boys in pants down around their ankles; rude people doing bad things and thinking that a day on their knees would atone; stealing; lying; sweethearting. Bring on the Seven Deadly Sins and let’s add a few.pieter_bruegel_the_elder-_the_seven_deadly_sins_or_the_seven_vices_-_avarice

Then, people head home in the deep of night, and have to wake up on Christmas morning to a houseful of screaming children.

“What did Santa bring?” Rip, tear, shred.



“Is that all I get?”

“That’s not what I wanted?”

“I got that last year!”

The mixed feelings that are Christmas are beginning to show early in the day. Happiness is only a smile away from fearful rows.

“Why did they have to use so much incense? Think about the asthmatics.”

“It’s time you all cut down on these services. Tooooo looooong!”

“You leave our services alone. We’re the only godly ones left.”

“I blame it on the government.”

“At least we got a government now. Your lot, took all the money and left us all with nothing to show. Bunch o’ crooks.”

The families sit and eat a hearty breakfast and love each other long enough to not bite off each other’s ears. I always like Christmas breakfast. It’s seasonally traditional: ham and eggs; coconut bread; raisin bread; special Christmas brews of teas and coffees; sorrel. Some like a little liquor early. “Boy, bring me that rum!” Grandpa needs to be kept happy.

The energy used up opening gifts is not much but it goes fast if you’ve had little sleep. Tuck in!

Men often get saddled with chores soon after if not before.

“Honey, can you assemble the bike, Robbie got? You know, I’m no good with those instructions…”

Hours later, Honey is still looking for grommet A to fit onto spindle 2. Robbie has gone back to playing with the empty box in which a new train came.

“Dearest, the kids want to try out their new i-whatevers. Just set up the modem and router for them. I can’t figure out those electronic doohickeys.”

Hours later…

“I get three green lights, and I see the connection, but still no Internet…Am I connected at your end?”

The kids have gone outside to play with rocks and just broke the neighbour’s window.

“Sorry, Mr. McFarlane. Daddy will come to fix it in a minute. Merry Christmas!”

We’re not yet at noon and moods are beginning to fray. We have three hours to go till dinner with the family. How many people will be there? “I hear about a hundred.”

Time to head to beds and take a nap. The day is hard in the land of the baking midday sun. The cool breeze of the morning has already given way to a rising heat. “It’s so hot!” Soon, silence reigns. For a few hours, calm will prevail. Energies restored and ready for the real fray. The arguments over Christmas dinner can be fierce. In The Bahamas, a peculiar ritual starts to shape up as people pre-position themselves for the coming Junkanoo parade.

“Who’s going to win?”

“Only one group in it, man.” Saxons. Valley. One Family. Roots.

“What’s the best theme?”

“What song Sting got out this year?”

Why they start Junkanoo so late? [After midnight.]

“The weather’s looking inclement. Better put the parade back a few hours. Start at 3 in the morning. Makes sense.”

“Those judges. All of them crooked, eh. They’re going to rob us, again.”

“Ain’t crooked. You-all don’t have any music; can’t dance. When you start practice? Last night? Cha!”

Dinner hasn’t even been served yet and the ripples are beginning. Blood won’t flow and voice will only rise a few decibels. Blows won’t be struck, but tongues will lash. But, the focus shifts as the smells become stronger from the kitchen and the clatter of dishes and trays start to compete with the voices.

“Oooh! Look at the turkey! Wow! That ham has a glaze, eh!”

“Where’s the peas and rice? Macaroni coming?”

“Baked beans coming? I hope so.”

Let your meat stop your mouth!

Putting life into a cliché: children are our future

My youngest daughter, all 10 years of her, sometimes encapsulates good sentiments in a way that is so pleasingly simple.

This child is a great blend of a certain kind of diversity. Her parents are from different countries. Her half-sisters were born in different countries; they look very different. She has  spent most of her life living outside the country of her birth, but also living in countries to which she can claim some strong ancestral links. She speaks one language fluently, and two others reasonably well. She embraces all aspects of her family history, as far as she can capture it.

She’s lucky enough to be living in Jamaica, the country where her father was born–not that of her birth, which he left for half a century and to which he returned a few months ago. Due to sad circumstances, she has her paternal grandfather living in her house, convalescing. Nice to be living near grandpa, whatever. She gets to see the wonderful landscape of that island, and sample some of the family and cultural connections that surround her.grandparents2

Last year, she went to a family reunion to Grand Bahama, where her maternal grandfather’s family gathered. She spent days enjoying cousins she had never met before. It was a first reunion for her.

She spent the past summer on a small island in The Bahamas archipelago–Greater Inagua–from where her maternal grandmother comes; it was a family reunion on her mother’s side, the first she’d attended with them. She had a ball, seeing an island of about 1,000 people, whose economy is based on salt extraction. Apart from those on the reunion, most people seemed to be cousins or connected. The island has ruggedness throught its heart, supporting some vegetation that like dry climates. Fish abound off its coast as do conch, and we went to catch our fair share. It also hosts flamingoes, arguably the most beautiful birds on Earth. They are preserved in a national park established by one of her maternal great grand uncles.

She admires her grandmother as the matriarch of her mother’s family. The patriarch of that family, her grand uncle, born on the same island, is now an important political figure and she loves to let the world know that she is his relative. Her grandmother and grand uncle are half-brother and -sister, with the same mother (born in Haiti), but one having a Bahamian father, and the other having a Jamaican father.

“Where will the next family reunion be next year?” she asked her mother on Christmas Eve. Her mother explained that there’s no reunion every year. “Whatever. Why don’t we go to Haiti,haiti_time_z_01 to honour your grandmother and her family roots?” she asked. My wife nodded and agreed that was a good suggestion.

I am not sure if my daughter has a good idea about the recent earthquakes in Haiti. However, her mind has no barrier to the place.

She spent the afternoon of Christmas Eve looking at photo albums in her grandmother’s house. “She looks just like me,” was a common comment as she saw pictures of her mother and her aunts. She was the centre and they were the edges. Welcome to her world! She binds her present with their past seamlessly.

I hope that she can continue to embrace the small and big differences that come into her world.

If Santa was a Jamaican

I don’t think most children in Jamaica understand how lucky they are that the man in the white beard, red cap, flying through the air with a sleigh full of gifts for them, is reportedly from one of those cold places near the Arctic Circle, where moving fast is necessary to stop icicles forming on you. He comes on time, no fail, each year. Don’t it? No slouching under the banana tree for Santa. Imagine if the man was a Yardie.santa_claus_jamaican_by_3onic-d5pcjsp

Christmas Eve has arrived. “Rudolph!… Rudolph! Where is that blasted reindeer when you need him?”

“Right here, Santa. You know how it is. I was waiting to bathe, man. But, no water coming through the pipe. I had to go down to the well to fill a bucket. Sorry, sir.”

“Boy, you’re just full of excuses. Hitch up the sleigh and get those packages loaded. I asked you from last week to start that and up till now I don’t see you move an inch. Soon come. Soon come. That’s all I hear. When you going to be ready?”

They start loading presents into the sleigh. Rudolph is still muttering under his breath. “Eediot! Wants me to load up from last week? He forget where we live? You want to see everything chewed up and all over the yard, after the goats come and tear up the boxes? You mad as shad, Santa! Last year, they steal the runners off the sled. Not again!”

Packages piled high, the pair are ready to go. “Where the other reindeer? They still sleeping?”

“Old man, you really losing it, eh. Remember, you laid off the reindeer last year. IMF squeezing everyone hard. Said, you had no need for idle hooves 11 months of the year. Now, it’s just me and you.” Rudolph could barely hide his grin. Goat christmas

“I knew I should have upgraded to a hybrid sleigh,” old Santa chuntered to himself. “Hitch up some of those goats, then, Rude Boy, and let’s see if we can hit the road.”

Midnight bells were just chiming, and the sleigh, laden, was ready to go. Church bells began to chime to signal to start of Christmas Day. Santa looked at his watch and rubbed his beard. “For once, could we leave on time? Why do we always have to be late?” The sleigh rumbled off the hill and picked up speed, with Rudolph huffing, and the goats pulling every which way as they tried to eat some trash blowing past them. Gradually, the craft lifted off the ground. “Where we headed first?” Santa asked Rudolph. “New Zealand. Just follow my nose.” Santa rolled his eyes at the deer. How many times had they done this? Rudoplh’s red nose pointed up and started the glow. Maybe, next year, Santa would make a present to himself of a GPS; this old-fashioned technology was not really the way to go.

The old man leaned back. Behind him, the large loudspeakers began to vibrate and the sounds of the first carols began to boom out. “Joy to the world!” he bellowed.

“Christmas is here!”

The best, better and good. Not giving any space to the bad and the ugly (December 22)

I coach soccer–teaching others. I practise golf–teaching myself and being taught. For a long time, I have been convinced about the power of positive thinking in both activities. I like to end practices or training sessions on a good note: that’s the sentiment  you take into the next occasion. (Jack Nicklaus always forget how he played when he lost, but always remembered the details of his wins.) So, I’m going to follow that practice this week. I am only looking at good things–in my humble opinion. Bad and ugly things drain your energies and make you feel all out of sorts. Enough of them, not just because it’s Christmas. So, what do I have left?

The best has to be Tessanne Chin winning The VoiceFor the next whenever, we will not hear anything else but her beautiful voice and see her pleasant personality. We Jamaicans cannot explain how we feel to hear her represent the country and culture in some simple and genuine ways. “Bred an butta…” “Oxtail and some butta beans…” “A likkle rum…” “Adom…” The laugh. The giggles. The tears. No screaming. Love her!
Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 10.39.32 AMJamaica has a new hero, brought from our own indifference but appreciated and hailed and boosted abroad, and now recaptured in our hearts. Few things have come along recently for Jamaica that can be seen as so inspiring–in the same vein as the Olympic and World Championship winning performances.

Very good would go to Pope Francis for ‘calling out’ the high and mighty and greed.

Kal cartoon, from The Economist
Kal cartoon, from The Economist

Showing off may be cool, but it’s quite un-Christian. Good time to remind people about humility.

I would give better to one of my puzzling politicians, Vladimir Putin, for pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil tycoon jailed for a decade after posing a challenge to Putin. Well, put in, can be put out. Very presidential, Gospadin Putin, who said he was acting out of “principles of humanity” because Khodorkovsky’s mother was ill. Christmas is such a wonderful season.

Amongst the good. In the same week when the parish of Manchester celebrated 199 years, Mandeville, its capital, unveiled a bust of its late and long-serving mayor, Cecil Charlton.

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 10.49.14 AM

So, I have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the bad and ugly. I know you’re out there, but really, let’s give peace a chance.

To have and to have not

A letter in one of the papers this week brought me up short. It complained about the cost of electricity making the writer afraid to put up Christmas lights. Contrast that to the report of an Australian family that strung up over 500,000 lights on their suburban home, Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 2.56.59 PMto reclaim their Guiness world record.

That same evening, I went to an uptown plaza and was interested to see the area decorated with Christmas lights. Where I live also had lights up at the entrance and along the pathway. Our house has lights up; outside and around the tree which my wife collected and decorated last weekend. So, too, do most of the neighbouring houses. If I take the letter as a gauge, we are not afraid of what our electricity bills would be after Christmas, or if we were, could somehow deal with them. Only last year did we put up a Christmas tree for the first time, so our youngest child can’t really say that she’s used to seeing it up. But, she’d be in shock if we said we did not think we could decorate it with lights because of the cost. We’ve driven around some of the neighbourhoods in recent evenings and seen many houses strewn with lights–not all, but many. Again, fear has not eaten into their owners’ desire to celebrate brightly. Clearly, we are the haves.


I try always to never forget where I came from in Jamaica. We were not people who were dirt poor, but life was simple and pleasant for that. Both of my parents came from big families in two of Jamaica’s big food providers–St. Elizabeth and St. Mary. Whatever else was happening, food, especially fruit and vegetables, was always available. Even though, I remember having to wait to eat until after the ‘big people’. As my parents established themselves in Jamaica and then England, we did not have to think often about lives of not having. Now, I see in Jamaica every day, many of the not haves. The country is full of hands outstretched to get a few coins, as the man did the other day as I drove past Devon House and he looked at my little stash of coins ready for making change.

We are often reminded of the meaning of the spirit of Christmas. I really hadn’t given much thought to what it meant to have lights on a tree–partly, because I never focused much on needing to have that. But, for those who try at this time of year to see the world as a better place, it’s the sort of image that puts a large distance between some who have and the many who have not.