An old time Caymanian Christmas

Know your Islands

The Christmases of many years ago were very different than the ones we celebrate today.

Sand yard

Sand yard

Our grandparents and even great-grandparents participated in and enjoyed many traditions that were very unique to the Cayman Islands and to the other islands of the West Indies.

Christmastime in Cayman was a very special time and people usually started getting into the Christmas spirit by covering their yards with beautiful white beach sand.

Families would begin backing sand for their yards in November and continue this task until Christmas Eve.

First, the family, most of the time the mothers and children, would go to the beach and fill straw baskets with the beautiful, clean beach sand.

They would then walk home with the sand baskets on their backs, and dump the sand into different piles all over the yard.

It usually took many trips to acquire enough sand, and finally when there was enough gathered, the family would take either a thatch or rosemary broom, and sweep the sand evenly across the yard until it was completely smooth.

Once the sand was spread, conch shells were often placed along the border of the yard, adding splashes of colour against the beautiful and refreshing white background.

The conch shells were usually found along the ironshore where fishermen had discarded them.

Christmas in old time Cayman was also a season of good food. During the year, cows would be fattened in order to be butchered for Christmas Day. A few days before the cows were to be butchered fathers would go and pay for what their families could afford in Christmas beef.

The beef was cooked in a wooden caboose for Christmas Day along with breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and cassava.

Sometimes these bread kinds were stewed together in a big pot. Pigeon peas with saltfish was also a common Christmas dish as were johnny cakes.

Christmastime was also a time for fun and fellowship with friends and family.

Neighbours and kin often had fabulous times at kitchen dances.

Kitchen dances were dances that were held in the houses of people who had wood floored kitchens.

Men would bring their fiddles, mouth organs (harmonicas), shakers (maracas), drums and graters to create music for the occasion. These same men who provided music for the kitchen dances would also go from door to door on the days before Christmas, playing for their neighbours.

On Christmas Day, children usually participated in a church Christmas programme where they performed songs and recitations.

Presents on Christmas Day were very rare in Cayman because most of the families were poor.

However, children were often given apples and candies, such as paradise plums that were brought by men returning from sea on ships.

Fathers were usually reunited with their families at Christmastime, when they came home from working on the ships or turtling.

This reminds us that though Christmas many years ago was different than we know it now, spending time with and showing love to the people we care about is what really matters during this special holiday.

Know Your Islands! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky, or call 949-0121. The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust.