Cayman’s beaches are filling up with tents, kitchen equipment, furniture, crates of food and drink, barbecues and radios, as residents get ready for the traditional Easter camping season.
As “traditions” go, Easter camping is relatively recent, only about 50 years old according to most accounts.
Attorney and West Bay-resident Caymanian Julene Banks says the tradition started with celebrations of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and Monday.
“Friday and Saturday were sacred days,” and Sunday services were “nearly obligatory,” she said. “On Easter Monday, there was always a service, and a lot of celebration on the beach. A lot of the churches would have an Easter Monday picnic.”
As a younger generation grew older, she said, and religious observance grew less compulsory, “they said, ‘we’ve got a long weekend and we’ll be partying on Monday, so why not have a long party all weekend?’”
Diana Whittaker at the Bodden Town Church of God picks up the tale: “It used to be so wonderful. We’d take the children to the beach and you had to be very careful, but the smaller ones could enjoy swimming.”
Easter Monday started “with breakfast at the church, and people would spend half the day cooking,” then the group would “go around looking for a place to accommodate the smaller ones and the teenagers would want to come, then the adults used to come along,” she said.
Initially, the group went to Half Moon Bay, she said, “serving and cooking on the beach,” but soon sought a better location.
“We used to ride bicycles to get there. We would ride donkeys and we’d walk … oh, there was plenty of walking.
“Some people,” she says, would linger, “would stay over, but that was just for a day. Now, people start on a Wednesday, but we really don’t do it anymore at the Church of God.”
Attendance has fallen off in recent years, Ms. Whittaker said, “and few people want to spend a half-day cooking.”
The Church of God and community efforts to cook for an entire congregation figure heavily in the memories of local figure Twyla Vargas.
“When it was Easter time, all the people just sat on the beach. It wasn’t ‘camping.’ We called it a picnic. It began with the churches,” she says, “and on Monday, we’d have an Easter picnic.
“In those days,” she said, her Church of God did not have a church hall where members could gather, “so we wanted to be where we could be more relaxed. We would boil eggs and color them,” hiding them in the scrub and among the rocks for an Easter egg hunt.
“People came it and it became a sort of habit,” Ms. Vargas says. As the occasion grew, the community pitched in to help: “Some would cook pots of chicken or beef or everything else, and we’d serve the entire congregation.
“It was our family and that was how Easter camping started,” she said.
Roy Bodden, president of the University College of the Cayman Islands and longtime chronicler of local history, offers the definitive word on the camping tradition, explaining Caymanians’ apparent compulsion to move their household to the beach for four days.
“Our celebration of Easter led to the Easter Monday picnic, which was usually organized by families in the church,” he says. “We’d have Easter egg hunts and corned beef sandwiches.”
He also explains why camping was not originally part of Easter celebrations.
“You could never go out on the beach camping because it would kill you,” he said. “Mosquitoes overwhelmed everything. It was not until the MRCU came along” – the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, founded in 1965 – that remaining outdoors after dusk became possible, he said.
“Camping was actually introduced by people from overseas,” ultimately making the Easter tradition “an admixture from our overseas brothers,” and determined Caymanians, and taking root only in the mid-1980s.
Before then, he said, Easter was absolutely sacred and holy, “and we never ate meat at a Friday meal. We did the traditional bun and cheese, copied from Jamaica, and, of course, as Caymanians, we ate a lot of fish.
“After Friday church, it was like a ‘Day of the Dead’ outside. No one was on the streets, nothing moved. Good Friday to Easter Monday was sedate, subdued,” he says, obliging all good citizens to remain respectful, sober-minded and deferential of the occasion.
But on “Easter Monday, we broke,” Mr. Bodden says, gathering “for a beach picnic, and the children went wild, making much noise and hullaballoo.”
Today, the occasion gathers all Caymanians, many of whom have occupied the same beach-side camping spots for decades, handing them down to the family over the years. The only cautions come from the police – who recommend vacant homes be secured – and the Department of Environmental Health, which asks campers to be mindful about hygiene and litter.