New Year’s garden party tradition

Considered one of the longest running traditions handed down through generations from slavery days, New Year’s garden parties in the Cayman Islands was and still is an occasion enjoyed by residents on the first day of the year.

Although this tradition is known today as a garden party, this was not always the case.

The century old tradition, put on by the Bodden Town and East End United Church congregations, first originated with the slaves for lack of something to do when they were given Christmas and New Year’s Day off to socialise. To break the daily routine of planting, harvesting and house chores, they would dress up and get together in the outside kitchen to dance and feast, much to the delight and watchful eyes of owners and overseers.

They would sip wine or rum that had been fermenting all year, cook left over produce after all the best crops were gathered for the master; wash out the old kitchen pots, cassava graters, pounding sticks, “mancala” board, and calabash shakers; and have themselves a dance party.

Twyla Vargas, a former training supervisor of tour guides at Pedro St. James Castle tells us how her grandmother, Nettie Levy, relates the tale of Pedro St. James slaves, where it all began.

Unlike Jamaica, the Cayman Islands did not have vast plantation fields for slaves to work. Most of the slaves brought to Cayman were house slaves, which she said really did not have too hard a life, since they were sometimes given the family’s cast off and leftovers from harvesting times.

When the slaves were allowed the opportunity to own pieces of land to start their own cultivation, as well as build homes and raise children, they continued to have these kitchen dances with lots of food to celebrate the New Year. By doing so over the years, it was handed down through tradition.

“It was the English, Irish, Boddens and Edens who first called it ‘New Year’s Garden Party’. Then the church took it over,” she said.

According to one 89-year-old church member, the garden parties started long before she was born. She remembers attending the event at the church parsonage on Manse Road in Bodden Town.

She said it was a big thing with residents and out-of-towners looking forward to the day’s celebration with friends and family. For the church, it was one of its biggest fundraisers as people paid a few shillings for the best produce, crafts, cakes, sweets, love letters from the post office, rosebuds, and shoe shines. Overzealous bidders often paid triple for what the produce was worth, but it was always for a good laugh in aid of the church fund.

Those who did not attend church on a regular basis pitched in with decorating the sisal Christmas tree and gathering coconut limbs and other tree bark to make booth coverings.

The Junkanoo was the highlight of Webster’s New Year’s Day garden party.

The town’s comedians would dress in old clothes, cover their faces with paint and march the streets from Guard House Hill to the Webster’s church dancing to the beat of banging pots and pans, grater, fiddle and an occasional violin or guitar.

Most children were told if they were not good throughout the year, the Junkanoo would take them away on New Year’s Day. This was also done in the spirit of good laughs and the few shillings collected from shining shoes were given to the church.

At night, there was a concert either at the town hall or church to end the day’s festivities. For months, the ladies would practice for that. Everyone looked forward to attending the East End event because they would put on the best comedy plays and the best dances with Radley Gouzong.

For years, the event was held on the grounds of the parsonage until later years some ministers were not comfortable about it and it was moved to the Webster church grounds. But in later years, it would be moved back to the parsonage for lack of parking space.

In later years as Cayman became more modernised, costume contests, dominoes, grab bags and another activities took over. But the cause still remains the same – a fundraiser for the church and a time to celebrate.