I just realized, today, that there are only twelve days to go before Christmas and I’m still don’t feel the Christmas “spirit.” I’d like to chalk it up to the various upheavals that have occurred in my life this past year, but I’m not so sure as I’ve heard several of my friends saying the same thing.
Normally, by now I would have baked my cakes and this weekend, I’d be getting ready to make cookies. But it’s twelve days till Christmas and nothing’s done. This morning, I picked up fruits. I’ll flash steam them in rum later. Maybe that’ll help change my mood as Christmas is my most favorite holiday of the year. While I try to get myself into the spirit of the season, here’s a look at some of my memories of Christmas.
In our house, Christmas was a big deal. Preparations would start early, sometimes by the end of November or early December and continue until Christmas eve. The house had to be readied, the grass cut, trees pruned and part of their trunks whitewashed. Since we didn’t have a traditional Christmas tree, we’d pick a tree — for years, it was the rice and peas plant that covered a corner of our house, like an ivy plant — and trim it and the house with lights. New curtains, sheets and bedspreads would be bought or special ones brought out and washed then put in place on Christmas eve.
Fruits that would have been soaking in rum a year or more, would be ground and folded into cakes that my cousins and I would help my mother to bake. I’ve put the recipe below.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’d shop and stock up on foods for the many family members and friends who’d drop by between Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day. Usually, there would be curried goat, roast pork and ham. Like most people, we’d pass up the rice and peas (red kidney beans) for another favorite: rice and gungo (pigeon) peas.
There’s also be gallons of rum spiked sorrel, a popular drink that is made traditionally at Christmastime. With its generous amounts of fresh ginger, it is a delicious accompaniment to fruit cake or had by itself.
On Christmas Eve we would stay up as late as we wanted to. On Christmas Day, with preparations over, we’d get ready for people to arrive. There would be lots of eating and merry making. In the evenings and sometimes at nights, we’d bring out the firecrackers and set them off.
Traditionally, from about the first week in December, all radio stations would play carols all day everyday. And on Christmas Day, they’d broadcast messages from Jamaicans living in places like New York, Toronto and London.
Although not as popular as before, another Christmas tradition is the Jonkunnu (Jonkanno or John Canoe), a masquerade parade with individuals dressed as certain characters like the Devil, Policeman, Actor Boy, Pitchy-Patchy, among others, and accompanied by a fife and drum band playing traditional Jonkunnu music.
There was also the Grand Market, where all markets would sell toys, firecrackers, balloons, grater cakes (coconut cakes) and other sweets on either the weekend before Christmas or on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Equally popular is the Christmas Pantomime, which opens on Boxing Day (December 26th) and has been performed in Jamaica for the last 70 years.
I also looked forward to going to church but especially on New Year’s Eve when Watch Night Services are held and in high school, I was part of a choir that traveled to various venues to sing carols.
In the part of Jamaica where I grew up, sugar cane was the main crop and in early December, the canes would sprout a light colored flower. Also in December, the cool air (Christmas breeze, as we call it) from North would begin to blow – together these were sure signs that Christmas was near.
6 oz flour
8 oz butter
8 oz dark brown sugar
1/2 lb raisins
½ lb currants
4 oz prunes
4 oz cherries
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond essence
1 tsp Rosewater (optional)
I tsp lime zest (finely grated lime peel)
4 oz almonds, chopped (optional)
Browning (optional, as the brown sugar and fruits will give the cake a rich, brown color)
Remove any pits or stems from raisins and currants, wash, place in a glass container and cover with white rum. Or, bring fruits and rum mixture to a boil. Turn off and let cool. Set a few whole fruits aside then grind the rest.
Remove any seeds from prunes and grind. Chop the cherries finely. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9” baking pan with butter and dust with flour or line bottom and sides with grease paper.
Sieve flour, add dry ingredients – cinnamon, salt, baking powder
Beat eggs, add wet ingredients – vanilla, almond, rosewater, lime zest
Bring butter to room temperature and cream with sugar (and browning, if used) until soft. Alternate adding flour and fruits to butter and sugar and mix well. Fold in chopped almonds. Mix thoroughly.
Pour into baking tin and bake at 350 degrees for 1½ hours.
Yield 9” cake.