Probably at no time of the year are memories more cherished than at Christmas for Caymanian families. From past to present, Christmas was and still is a cherished family tradition.
It is happy times with family, friends and sharing what little is on the table.
Back then, the children looked forward to decorating the yard with white sand and the opportunity to hang out with friends without parent supervision … that was the biggest treat. All chores completed, the children would scour the neighbourhood for empty paint cans in which to carry the sand home from the beach, placed in piles and later raked with a rosemary broom to make the yard pretty.
Conch shells were also collected and used to line the sandy walk ways. No one was allowed to walk on the sand after it was brushed.
Sand backing was mostly done by moonlight and this was the time children collected broken pieces of coloured glass to make what they called a moon shine baby. The glass was laid out on the ground and when the moonlight shown on the glass it made a pretty sight on the ground just like the sparkling lights on a Christmas tree.
During the day, firewood was collected and stacked in the outside kitchen. This was to insure that the ladies had enough firewood to make those delicious pot cakes that would accompany the stew beef.
Like Christmas, which comes but once a year, so did fresh beef. From as early as November, everyone was putting in orders for fresh beef and eyes were already set on a special willow tree to cut for Christmas. The tree would be decorated with pine cones, string popcorns, scraps of coloured cloth, magazine pages, sea shells and painted dried seeds.
When December came round families were ready. The sorrel was cut to make the drink; the yam and cassava were harvested and grated for the pot cakes and the corn picked from the garden.
A week before Christmas no one looked forward to getting “Wash-out”. This was grannies’ concoction of either Castor oil, Zinnia or cow itch in pawpaw juice, which was given to children as a purge from all the different foods. This was a bitter medicine to swallow and most of us children hid from it.
Kids stay up
The children backed wood, grated coconut, peeled yam and cassava and burned coals outside to prepare for baking Christmas Eve night. This was also one of the best times for the children because they got to stay up late at night.
“I can hear granny Nettie now,” says Twyla Vargas. “Go carry these two coconuts down the road for Aunt Bee. Her husband “Pa” will give you a bundle of bundle of sorrel to take home.” Twyla says she can still imagine the sweet aroma of freshly baked breads coming out from the old bakery and she lingering longer than usual in the hopes of getting a piece before heading back home.
“It was a lot of giving with folks those days. The men would sit together under a tree and tell jokes, smoke pipe and drink sorrel laced with white rum and vine and have a merry good time.”
The children were so excited to receive Christmas presents the next day, an apple, a pack of cracker jacks; an old dolly or a truck with two wheels and hand-me-downs was like treasures.
Christmas day was also special because families got to see friends and other family that lived in other districts. After church service everyone would gather to have dinner, pot cake and sorrel.
“As the years passed, I wonder what has happened to all the fun we had in those days,” says Twyla. She claims television and other modern day influences has taken away from spending quality time with family.
According to her, our thoughts are different now. We were innocent about life and had a very strong culture. If we had a coconut we would share it in two and send half to our neighbour. We took care of each other’s children and helped when someone was building a home. The folks in East End grew plantation food, and always sent plenty of it down to Bodden Town to their friends. The people from Lower valley would make sure we had enough oranges and other fruits that were available those times. Folks in Bodden Town would exchange fish and conch and lobster.
Twyla claims Christmas today is not like it was back then. It is nothing but stress. Everyone is complaining about money, to buy new things, pay bills and the list goes on. She said folks from other districts do not even visit any more. The humble Christmas trees have changed to towering electric trees with many lights. People are not kind to another anymore, and many times she wonders what has caused that.
She says the sorrel does not taste the same. It is not specially made with a twist. There are no pot cakes, the older folks who use to make them have passed on and the young generation wants to taste but not bake. It is a dying art, and soon no one will know how to make a pot cake.
“Folks back then enjoyed the idea of Christmas with a different meaning. They respected it in a different way, went to church and paid tribute to the Saviour. Things have changed and some may say it is for the better. I would say, not really, because I miss the way it was back then.”
Ms Vargas leaves us with a thought for Christmas.
“Do all that you know is right and pleasing to God, Make a pledge to attend church and be kind to one another in the coming year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year full of joy to all.”