Trini Christmas — Past and Present
by Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal
During my travels, when I compare cultures with the people I meet, most of them comment that we Trinidadians take Christmas to the extreme. From August, advertisements go in the newspapers about sales on various types of merchandise, and if you close your eyes you may be able to smell “black cake” baking. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.
Christmas celebrations in Trinidad really begin in September or October with the start of the parang season, which continues until 6th of January. Especially popular in Trinidad and Tobago, parang is a genre of Caribbean folk music with origins in South America. Traditionally they contain religious (Christian) lyrics, but now they include a variety of topics and customs surrounding the Christmas celebrations in the country. Singing parang from house to house was our version of caroling. At each house, the parranderos would get a piece of ham — if the ham was not ready they would just get a drink. Nowadays, parang is more often done on a national competition level rather than at a community level except in some rural communities.
To others the first sign of Christmas is the “Christmas Breeze”, which to me has a hint of a chill.
I do agree with the observation that we have the habit that everything in a Trinidadian household must be perfect for Christmas Day. This includes new curtains, furniture and appliances. It is not uncommon to see furniture trucks parked outside of houses, delivering new sofa sets or refrigerators and washing machines. (Of course, when the holiday season is over it is another common sight to see “repo” trucks outside these same homes if the new owners failed to make the payments. The furniture ends up in “scratch and dent” sales that follow the holidays.)
Most of us like brand-new curtains, and it is not uncommon to see people with packs of ready-made panel curtains piled up in their arms, or in the process of deciding which colour will go best with a piece of furniture or wall colour, or sometimes just trying to remember what colour combination they hung up last year so as not to buy the same thing again. These brand-new treasures get hung up a few weeks before the big day or on Christmas Eve.
Having fresh floral arrangements was not a common practice in the past, so flowers made from crepe paper and secured to a strand of cocyea (coconut frond spine) with string were used as decorations. Artificial flowers are still popular.
Also, when Trinidadians paint for Christmas they paint everything — inside and outside. The entire house is turned inside out and in each room the furniture is piled in the middle while the walls are being painted.
In the past there was a lot of pride taken in the furniture owned, particularly since it was very expensive to obtain. So every year around Christmas time all the furniture would get a coat of varnish while the wooden floors got a coat of lacquer. Many a time guests have become stuck, because amidst the celebrations the homeowners forgot to notify them that the furniture had just been varnished! Last-minute painting has always seemed to be a tradition of a Trini Christmas.
When do we get the time to do all of this? Well, the answer is “when we can”, be it after work or school. And when the school vacation rolls around, well, then there is even more activity with the children pitching in with the preparations.
Sometimes it seemed as though everyone was in the yard doing something. The women were boiling the Christmas ham in a biscuit tin (salted crackers used to come in large square metal tins) on an outdoor fire. The children played outdoors, the reason being that the house steps and floors had been painted, as well as the walls, so that you could not go inside even if you wanted to. And who would want to with all the hustle, bustle and excitement going on in the yard?
When it came to food, like most cultures at special times you would partake of those that were quite expensive as well as not present all year round. Common examples included fruits such as, apples, grapes and pears. These were a luxury, as they were rarely imported except around Christmas time. Other items on a typical Christmas menu included a variety of desserts such as sponge cake, sweet bread, and black cake, the latter being the Caribbean version of a fruitcake. This is filled with fruits soaked in rum, and after baking preserved by pouring some rum on it every few days.
Even the way the cakes were baked was interesting. If you were lucky back then, you possessed a tin oven. These large square ovens were placed on top of the burners of kerosene stoves, the object being that the hot tin would bake the contents inside. If you didn’t have a kerosene stove, you would place it on an outdoor fire or use a clay oven.
Using a clay oven was quite a process, in that first a fire had to be lit inside in order to heat up the clay. When this had been reduced to ashes the oven was swept out and the breads and pastries placed inside. A wooden door was put in place and the space around the door was sealed with wet cloth bags. Not everyone in the village would own a clay oven and you would have to use your neighbours’, which meant paying a user fee (usually 25 cents, or one of the breads or pastries). So it was not unusual to see a line of people with their ingredients and baking tins, waiting their turn to use the oven.
Another method, usually reserved for small households, was to place the baking tin in a pot on an outdoor fire. The pot was covered with a small sheet of “galvanise” (metal) and a fire built on top of this to simulate the action of an oven.
Some other types of food eaten at Christmas are from a variety of cultures that have occupied the islands at some point in history. These include black pudding (blood sausage) from our British ancestors. A traditional “ole time” Christmas breakfast consisted of black pudding and hops bread (you can think of it as a tough hamburger bun). At Christmas time, we make pastelles, an indigenous Amerindian food that the Mexicans call tamales. The soft cornmeal dough is rolled to form a thin circle and vegetables or meats such as beef or pork are placed in the middle, and then wrapped in the dough. The parcel is then wrapped in pieces of banana leaves that have been boiled to sterilize them and to make them pliable. The wrapped parcels are tied with string and boiled for 45 minutes to an hour. We also make paimees. Here the cornmeal mixture used to make the pastelles is formed into a ball, wrapped the same way and boiled.
When it comes to drinks, we usually make pretty, red sorrel, which is made from boiling the sepals of the sorrel fruit (roselle, or Hibiscus sabdariffa) with spices such as cinnamon and cloves and straining the mixture. For ginger beer, the ginger roots are either grated or smashed using a mortar and pestle, and placed in a jug with cloves and water and left overnight. In the old days the ginger mixture would be placed in the sun for a few days. What has always been a staple is Peardrax (a pear-flavoured soft drink), which was and still is treated as non-alcoholic champagne.
The most exciting part of all the weeks and months of Christmas preparations in Trinidad is that most of these activities — the painting, cooking, baking and decorating — ends up getting done on Christmas Eve.
What you have to remember is that times were very hard during the early part of the 20th century and some of the holiday practices we retain from those days may seem primitive by our current standards. But that does nothing to take away from the Christmas spirit. But whether these traditional activities have remained the same or have just been modified, when it comes to Christmas in Trinidad, “we don’t make joke”!
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