Christmas traditions of a bygone era

Cayman Christmas of yesteryear was a magical time for children and adults alike, with many Caymanians relying on their resourcefulness and creativity to come up with their very own traditions.  

Their answer to a “white Christmas” was to replace snow with sand, and Scotch pine trees with casuarinas. Instead of Santa Claus parades, they “marched” in the streets. Glittery ornaments and decorations were unheard of; instead, homemade decorations were derived from nature. 

“Sand yards” were a tradition that began when early Scottish immigrants missed the snow from back home and wanted to re-create that “feeling” though they were living in a tropical climate. As the years passed, the process of collecting sand from the beach to cover front yards became referred to as “backing sand.” The activity was a labor of love that had the added benefit of not costing a penny.  

The goal was simple – who could create the best-looking yard filled with fresh, snow-white sand? Many children and adults, mostly women, would make the nightly trek to the closest beach to find the whitest sand for their yards. The friendly competition among neighbors would begin as early as October and continue until the last full moon before Christmas Day. It was always better to go at night, since the moon would light the way (there were no streetlights in those days), and the cool breezes common during this time of year also made the activity easier.  

The sand would be scooped up using handmade thatched baskets with long handles which would be balanced on top of heads or around foreheads, with the weight of the baskets nestled on backs.  

Ola Jackson, 73, remembers the tradition fondly as a young girl growing up in West Bay. She would walk to the nearby beach with her friends every day after school and carry fresh white sand in tall baskets back to her home’s front yard. Back and forth she would go until enough sand was gathered and then formed into piles in her front yard.  

“When we’d come home, we’d sweep up the yard and get rid of the leaves. We did this two or three times a week. We’d have piles of sand all over the front yard.” 

But the exciting part really came just before Christmas Eve, when families would sweep the sand and make it smooth. “The night before Christmas Eve it would always be bright moonlight, so we would spread the sand out. If a chicken went into it, we’d throw a rock to get it off. No footprints were allowed!” said Jackson. “It could only be swept in one direction. We used a broom made from a rosemary bush branch. We’d tie two or three branches together with string and make a nice broom. We had so much fun. Oh, we had so much fun.”  

Children were exhilarated once Christmas Day came, as this meant they could finally begin playing in the sand, which now resembled powder as fresh as the driven snow. 

To add to the décor, intricate footpaths made of gravel were bordered by conch shells that led to the front door. Coupled with the blooming flowers of the season, whether bougainvilleas or blossom trees, a truly festive landscape was created – one that homeowners could be proud of and which brought great joy to the entire family and surrounding neighbors. 

Sand yards can still be seen today – just take a drive around and you may spot a few traditional wattle and daub houses displaying their sand yards beautifully. The Cayman National Cultural Foundation also does a re-enactment of this tradition at Miss Lassie’s House each year.  

“Sand yards are still found in many of the outlying districts, such as North Side, East End and the Sister Islands …,” said Lorna Bush, CNCF cultural heritage programs specialist. 

Christmas festivities and decorations 

Another tradition that many Caymanians looked forward to was “marching” in the street. A few weeks before Christmas, groups of people took to the street to sing Christmas carols and popular songs of the day. In the days before cars, they would often walk long distances, and some would play an instrument – perhaps the accordion, guitar or drums. They would also go door to door throughout their own districts; when they needed to rest their feet, they would stop at a home and have a beverage – rum or hot, spiced sorrel – and a few bites to eat. Kitchen parties were also quite popular.  

There were no flashing, colorful lights or expensive glittery decorations like those that adorn homes today. Everything came from nature, and everyday objects were used in creative ways. For example, pine cones from the casuarinas were covered in foil and hung as tree ornaments. Wild rosemary bushes were gathered, cut and dried and placed throughout the home, sometimes in buckets of sand, as well as fragrant flowers in bloom and colorful ribbons. Many people would spruce up their home with a fresh coat of paint (often giving it a white-wash), as well as give the walls and floors a good cleaning and polishing to bring in the New Year with a sparkle. Special curtains and bedspreads would also be brought out for Christmas.  

According to Bush, the first family in Grand Cayman to have a modern Christmas tree was Ella Latters’s family. Latters’s father James Hurlston worked for Moravian Missionaries from Germany in Nicaragua, where Christmas trees were ordered from Germany each year. The Latters family would get theirs in the same lot while they lived in Nicaragua. Once back in Grand Cayman, Hurslton would find a suitable tree and decorate it. 

Up until the 1970s, Christmas concerts were also a very big social event – perhaps the biggest event of the year. Children would practice their parts for months in the evenings and were expected to learn their lines, whether from a poem, skit or for a role in a play – without any mistakes. And if you forgot your lines, it would be considered an embarrassment for the entire family as you had to perform in front of the whole community. In addition to church concerts, special skits and plays were organized at the local town halls and community centers as time went on. 

New clothes 

Money was scarce, but Christmas was a time for new apparel. Many clothing items were hand-sewn with the material hand-picked from the few stores on island, which would stock new fabric and pretty buttons especially for the occasion. Women would pore over patterns in catalogs such as Montgomery Ward and Walter Field to see what the latest trends and styles were that year.  

Depending on your family’s income, sometimes more than one dress was made. “Young ladies in particular would be planning weeks or even months in advance for the number of new dresses required, as each event meant a brand new outfit,” said Bush. “It was a mad rush to find something different and special and often a well-guarded secret as to what each would wear to these special events.  

“Of course, the ultimate prize was a ‘ready-made’ dress, usually brought home by the men of the family, who would return home from the long trips at sea,” said Bush. 

As more men went out to sea, exotic materials and other traditions from their voyages to other parts of the world were brought back to their families. George Town harbor would be filled with crowds waiting for the ships to arrive.  

Ola Jackson remembers getting new socks, ribbons and two or three dresses at Christmas time, as well as getting her new shoes and not being allowed to wear them to school.  

“Almost everyone had one pair of shoes unless they were well-off. We used to go to school barefoot, but the new shoes you got at Christmas were for church and other special occasions. And you would give your shoes from last year to someone who couldn’t afford new ones,” she said. 

Whether it was Christmas church services, concerts or garden parties, this was the time to show off your brand new outfits.  

Santa’s arrival 

Santa m
ade his first appearance in Cayman around 1901, according to Bush, with the seamen bringing the tradition home from their travels.  

“The children would look and wait for him all day and all night until they fell asleep. They would place special stockings at the foot of their parents’ bed because they had no fireplace,” she said. 

Having no chimney or snow for a sleigh meant that Santa arrived by boat or plane. Stockings were usually brown paper bags or socks and included apples, pencils, hair ribbons, candies, Crackerjacks, noise makers, small toys or dolls.  

“Hand-sewn dolls were the most popular items for girls, and little cars made from matchboxes or carved from wood would be the gifts for boys. Apples, which were a novelty and only available at Christmas time, would be included as a part of the Christmas package,” said Bush. 

Ola Jackson’s husband Kem Jackson, 77, remembers it well.  

“The ship would come in and bring in the apples. That was the best thing about Christmas. We only got apples at Christmas, and I thought they only grew in Christmas. That was the only time the stores had them.”  

After the presents were opened, everyone would dress up in their brand new clothes and walk to church.  

Just as today, many Caymanians come from a strong Christian background, so entire families attended the special Christmas morning service, filling up the pews. 

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Children sing old-time Christmas carols at a concert. – Photo: Jewel Levy

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