Conjuring the spirit of Christmases past

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Many residents fondly remember the country’s festive traditions of years gone by. Image shows Christmas fruit cake, coal pot and jabba, and a ‘John Bull’ (Courtesy Dr Robert Nicholls)
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Observer takes a nostalgic look at the festivities of yesteryear

By Samantha Simon

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Christmas has always been a time where joy and cheer surround everyone you meet, though with each passing year the way the holiday is celebrated evolves.

Commercialisation of the holidays and increased influence from larger western countries have created a shift from many local traditions that were practiced in the 20th century.

Despite this, the memories live on fondly, such as when many of us would buy the latest carol sheets for church carol services.

Once all the house cleaning and decorating was done, the task of Christmas cards took priority as families hurried to send them off with the postman in time for them to reach before the holiday season ended.

This evolved into a competition of pride, where cards would be hung on a line crisscrossing the sitting room to display how many cards they had gotten from friends and family.

Further decorations such as flowers made from crepe paper and plastic bags, streamers, cut-out snowflakes and wreaths made from wire and green plants, plastic or fabrics were handcrafted by family members to give the home a festive feel.

Christmas trees eventually became a part of the décor, with those who could afford them purchasing imported pine trees, whilst others would bring plants such as wild tamarind or other leafy green plants into their homes.

The menus were also vastly different in years gone by, with many having any number of ground provisions, vegetables and fruits on their plates that had come straight from their personal gardens or from trading with neighbours.

Turkey was scarcely on the menu, with many opting to raise and fatten up a rooster for the occasion if they could not afford to purchase a fresh or pickled hog’s leg, mutton or duck, which were cooked on the coal pot in a large sausage tin that was able to fit the large cuts of meat.

Visitors were always greeted with a plate of food, and persons often spent Christmas and Boxing Day visiting and getting their share of Christmas cake or pudding with a cup of sorrel or ginger beer so strong it chased the winter flu away.

Gift exchanges also were much less commercialised than they are now, with persons giving more practical gifts, such as shoes, clothing or homemade items like knitted hats or socks.

Children were especially excited to get small toy soldiers, cowboys and Indian figures, plastic dolls, either with or without hair, and water or toy guns.

Older children looked forward to possibly getting items such as handkerchief sets, purses or items they viewed as allowing them to seem more like an adult, or music boxes that all could enjoy listening to.

Christmas morning was filled with the sounds of string and iron bands going through the streets, parading as they sang, and carols playing across the island as families woke up.

The parades were usually accompanied by ‘Long Ghosts’ – 12ft masked figures on stilts – who peeped into bedroom windows or on the galleries of residents’ homes looking for gifts of Christmas food or donations. If nothing was given, a string inside the ‘ghost’ was pulled which made the arms wave about in a most haunting display of dissatisfaction.

John Bulls also roamed the streets, terrifying and exciting onlookers with their grotesque appearances featuring imposing horns and old clothing accented with dried banana leaves and painted masks.

Acrobats, who were at the time called “play actors”, also added to the flair with performances of astounding feats such as jumping over the backs of six or seven persons crouching on all fours to the accompaniment of the bands, whilst dressed in close-fitting trousers about an inch above the knee, edged with lace. Over this was a skirt also trimmed with lace.

Most memorable amongst the bands to roam the streets was One-Man-Band Carty and his dancing songstress partner, walking through the villages of Antigua whilst simultaneously playing carols on his accordion, drums, mouth organ, banjo, flute and any number of other instruments he could carry on his person.

Children sat glued to their radios, eagerly anticipating hearing Christmas stories, or One-Man-Band Carty come on their kids’ programme on Saturday mornings.

Christmas has not ceased to be a holiday that brings us together, but it has become a time of year where memories of yesteryear become all the more vivid in our hearts.

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