Christmas in Cayman is always a special time of year, filled with togetherness and festive merriment. White sand yards, local Christmas beef, kitchen dances, heavy cakes, handmade gifts, carolers and special church services are the hallmarks of a very traditional Caymanian Christmas.
During Christmases past, everyone would get together for the preparations. Cows and pigs were selected and set aside for slaughter; the best yams, cassavas and sweet potatoes would be harvested; firewood was collected to cook the heavy cakes, stew beef and pork; the house was thoroughly cleaned and tidied. Getting all this done for Christmas was hard work but good fun; it was something everyone looked forward to and everyone lent a helping hand. Indeed, each member of the household had his or her allotted task.
White sand yards – gardens covered in Cayman’s pristine powder-white sand and decorated with conch shells – is the traditional way to decorate for the season. This tradition was carried out mostly by children, who in return would earn some spending money for Christmas. Equipped with thatch baskets and pint cans, the children would “back sand” all through the night. In the morning the sand was spread around the yard and raked. No snow on any ground looked as pretty.
The youngsters would also gather pieces of broken plates to make “moonshine babies.” When the light from the moon shone on the glass, the shimmering colors lit up like a Christmas tree.
The women’s preparation of the mouthwatering cuts of seasoned beef and pork was an art in itself, with recipes lovingly handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. There were no McCormick’s spices, refrigeration or onions back then, but the food sure did taste good.
In those days, most of the cooking was done outside or on the caboose. Some folks would dig a hole in the ground, place coals and bramble wood in it, and slow cook the beef, pork or heavy cake in a Dutch pot for hours.
To spice up the meat, folks pulled shallots from the garden plot. Bud peppers and salt were added to the mix and rubbed into the beef and pork. Cow fat was used as oil to cook the meats. Some older folks said the cow fat would preserve the beef throughout the holidays.
I miss those old days, life was simple, goods were shared, and greetings were called to everyone who passed by.
When it came to baking the seasonal cakes, two holes were dug in the earth and the same Dutch pot was stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar, a pinch of parched cinnamon, grated nutmeg, coconut milk and grated cassava, yam, sweet potato or pumpkin. You could smell and taste Christmas in the air when these foods were cooking. So pungent were the aromas that they seemed to seep into the very woodwork itself, leaving an aroma long after Christmas had passed.
The church service on Christmas Day was an event for everyone. All the pews would be filled with people decked out in their Sunday best. The lucky ones had a special frock, blouse, bonnet or shirt they’d been saving for the occasion. Christmas concerts were also a special event during the season, along with quadrille dancing and parties. All the churches on the islands organized concerts that the children would take part in and recite Christmas poems and sing carols.
Perhaps most importantly, Christmas was an extra special time of year as it was often around this time when many of Cayman’s seaman returned home for the holidays.