Trees cut fresh from the beach and decorated with shells. The sweet aromas of turtle or wild fowl cooking in the kitchen caboose. The glow of heavy cakes baking on an open fire. The sights and sounds of a Cayman Christmas have changed dramatically over the decades. From fearsome Junkanoo masks to the gruesome spectacle of draining and butchering the cow for Christmas beef, some of the island’s favorite traditions are being kept alive this festive season.
Caymanians harbor many Christmas traditions that have persisted into the present day. One of them was not, however, a shortage of Christmas trees.
Long before Cayman Islands residents began importing exotic firs and pines, Caymanians had their own special wild trees to symbolize the yuletide season.
Finding and cutting your own “real” Christmas tree was a tradition everyone looked forward to in every household back in the day.
Sometimes it was a willow or casuarina tree, or a rosemary bush – decorated with red ladybug seeds, seashells, stringed popcorn, silver thatch ornaments, cloth dollies, painted sea shells, wooden toys, wild flowers or strips of colored cloth.
A few lit candles were placed on the window ledge to illuminate the tree and surrounding area.
A faint trail of smoke from a smoldering fire pan, lit near the doorway to keep the mosquitoes at bay, gave the tree a smoky look, almost like a light covering of snow.
Harvesting the Christmas tree involved work, trekking the beach and getting outside for some good old-fashioned seasonal fun.
It was always up to the children to scout out the best-looking tree, which could sometimes take hours and a lot of discussion.
Either the tree was too skinny, was too big to carry, did not have enough branches or was just too small, as everyone came up with their idea as to what the perfect Christmas tree should look like.
Dragging the tree back home through the sand often tore off many of the branches.
On the way home, empty paint cans were filled with white sand to plant the tree in and to decorate the yard.
Most families did not have much money and store-bought items were scarce. Come Christmas morning, a mix of presents wrapped in brown paper and adorned with colorful thatch string could be found under the tree, containing perhaps sets of playing Jacks, boxes of Cracker Jack with their surprise gifts, wooden trucks, stitched dollies, slates and pencils, flower sack dresses or khaki pants.
No one was forgotten at the Christmas tree gathering. Children in the community would make a penny hauling a tree and a penny for each can of white sand delivered to a neighbor’s house.
My childhood friend Martin Bodden recalls hunting the perfect Christmas tree.
“A couple of days before Christmas, my parents would head to South Sound where some of the prettiest willow trees could be found,” he said.
“Most Caymanians will tell you, the best trees were always found around a cemetery. It was also the most feared place that most Caymanians, whether young or old, went to cut a tree.”
Begging his daddy not to cut the tree so close to a graveyard just fell on deaf ears.
He remembers his mother using a pan filled with white sand and rocks to keep the tree upright. It had to be watered each day, so it would keep fresh.
“I look back at those beautiful days with mixed emotions … thoughts of fearing the dead, old people, and how it used to be. Sadly, each year we use an artificial tree to decorate, it’s not the same. One day, I will go back to cutting the tree … that’s where the spirit of Christmas all began for me,” he said.
Bodden Town resident Neville McCoy, age 79, remembers the Christmas days of his childhood as being magical – it was “so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” he said.
Christmas preparations started with the “backing” of white sand in paint cans from the beach.
The sand was collected during moonlit nights and sold around the community for a penny. Sometimes, the sand was carried to homes as far as Lower Valley in Bodden Town. Three trips a night for a week for a fee of sixpence, he said.
The men in the neighborhood would cut “grass fields” and get paid one cow when the job was done. The cow was divided among the men who participated, Mr. McCoy said.
The houses also had to be painted, new flour sack curtains hung on the windows, plantain leaf bedding restuffed with fresh dry leaves, firewood collected, new shag rugs made for the floor, and the oil lamps topped up with kerosene.
Paint could not be bought those days, so residents made their own from a mixture of “white lime,” sea coral and coloring powder to whitewash the house.
Yard cleaning and the spreading of white sand was also a big deal just before Christmas.
The piles of white sand had to be raked evenly over the ground at the front of the house and the walkway lined with fresh conch shells. No one dared to step on the sand after it was evenly raked, Mr. McCoy said.
The exciting part came just before Christmas Eve, when families would sweep the sand and make it smooth. For the children, playing in the freshly piled white sand Christmas morning was a treat.
To get children to bed, parents would tell them that, if they were not asleep, the mysterious entity named “Junkanoo” would come calling instead of Santa. But by the crack of dawn, everyone was awake and under the Christmas tree.
Traditional foods and music
Special foods and seasonal music were also a big part of the holiday celebrations, Mr. McCoy said.
As Christmas approached, families obtained whatever they could to prepare for the feast.
He said in those days there were no fridges, nor gas or electric stoves, but mostly fire huts.
Some people had wood stoves, and the men would cut firewood and put it by the roadside for sale. People would come from all parts of the island to buy the wood to use for fuel, for cooking or for burning to keep the mosquitoes away.
Getting nearer to Christmas, farmers would go to the plantation to harvest crops. Sweet potatoes, corn, cassava, yams, breadfruits, sorrel and watermelons were favorites for Christmas.
The air was flooded with sweet aromas from freshly baked cakes and breads, stew beef, rabbit, wild fowl, turtle or stew pork cooked in the outside kitchen caboose. Oddly, although eaten the rest of the year round, hardly any fish dishes were seen at a Christmas venue.
Several weeks before Christmas, Caymanians would bake the traditional “heavy cakes,” made from cassava, yam, sweet potato, pumpkin or breadfruit. Basically, any produce the men would bring from the land or from what the women grew around the house were used to create this dense and sticky sweet treat.
Everyone in town claimed their heavy cake was the best, even when there was no recipe to be had. Most bakers just said, “Add a dash of this” and “a pinch of that,” and “Everything will be just fine.”
Traditional heavy cakes are made by grating the root, adding flour, spices, sugar, salt and coconut milk and baking for hours over coals in a cast iron pot on a wood fire.
At almost every house in the community, you could see the glow from the outside fire where the heavy cakes were baking.
“Those who didn’t bake had no need to worry. Everyone around would bring over a piece at Christmastime,” Mr. McCoy said.
In West Bay, Chris Christian recalls his grandfather Andrew Powery digging a hole in the ground for grandma Ellen to bake her cassava heavy cake in a cast iron Dutch pot.
He said a hole was dug in the cliff rock, maybe 2 feet wide and one foot deep. Dried grape tree or logwood branches were added to the hole and burned into coals.
While the fire was burning, grandma Ellen was in the “out kitchen” preparing the cassava mixture.
The pot was placed on the coals in the hole, more coals covered the pot sides and a sheet of zinc with coals was placed on the pot top. “That was the easy part,” Mr. Christian said.
“Granny spent several hours making sure the fire was a constant temperature by adding coals and taking time to baste the cake with a mixture of coconut milk and sugar.”
Basting was a necessary technique used for keeping the cassava cake moist while cooking in those days, Mr. Christian said.
“We just couldn’t wait for a piece, and hung around taking in the delightful aroma.”
Mr. Christian said his favorite part of the cake was the scraping from the pot bottom and the sugary sticky pieces left around the pot sides.
For him it seemed it took forever for the cake to cool, but once this was done, it was served with fresh boiled cow’s milk or sorrel.
Cows were butchered on Christmas Eve or a day before.
The men would kill the cow and hang it to drain, and butchering was carried out early in the morning under the grape trees on the beach. This was because shopkeeper Logan Bodden, who was the meat inspector in the Bodden Town community, had to inspect the meat before it went on sale.
“Mr. Logan didn’t know a horse from a cow, much less if it was good for consumption or not,” Mr. McCoy said with a laugh as he explained how as health inspector, Mr. Bodden had to be given a choice lot of meat as his fee.
“The saying was at the time, ‘Don’t touch a thing until Mr. Logan comes.’”
Before Mr. Bodden came to carry out the inspection, the men would cut meat from the cow’s neck, make up a fire under the sea grape trees and cook up a big pot of beef stew seasoned with shallots, bird peppers, and salt and pepper. This was eaten with either roast, boiled or steamed soft or waxed cassava, pumpkin, sweet potato or breadfruit. Bammy, a sticky flatbread made from peeled cassava grated, squeezed, pan fried and then soaked in beef stew gravy was also enjoyed by the older folks.
“My, what a treat that was … We had those elderly people who could prepare the beef so good it would make you lick your fingers. Beef was only had once a year and that was at Christmas, and everyone was anxious for a taste,” Mr. McCoy said.
The kids would hang stockings over the bed. Sometimes those stockings on Christmas morning would contain a gig [spinning top] if it was available, or a yo-yo, or sometimes, if the parents could afford it, a little toy gun, which looked like the “real McCoy” and gave off quite a bang when it was fired, he said.
After all the preparations for Christmas were completed, people started having fun by attending numerous quadrille “kitchen dances” around the community and visiting friends and family in other districts.
Caymanians would gather at neighbors’ homes and have kitchen dances with whatever homemade musical instruments they could find. Those days, it could be the fiddle, the flute (made from a papaya stalk punched with holes), homemade drums stretched tight with cow skin, pots, pans, maracas, graters and forks. “It sounded good too,” Mr. McCoy said.
Christmas caroling was also a part of the Christmas traditions. Jolly bands of churchgoers, dressed in knitted shawls and long frocks, went door-to-door spreading the spirit of Christmas through hymns such as “Deck the Halls,” “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” or “We Three Kings.”
On Christmas morning, the most delicious breakfast awaited: freshly baked bread and Anchor butter, fried fish, Jamaican cocoa spiked with fresh cow’s milk and warm eggnog, and heavy cake. By midmorning, the women were drinking sorrel while eating spiced Christmas cake and preparing clothes for Christmas church.
The men prepared their fedora hats and jackets while savoring a spiked-up version of sorrel. Other men in the community gathered under the grape trees at the beach behind Miss Lorna Bodden’s shop to drink and retell old stories.
Christmas Day was a holy day, said Mr. McCoy. There was no one on the streets after church. After Christmas service, families gathered at home to celebrate and enjoy the Christmas feasts everyone had been preparing leading up to the holiday.
The rest of the day was either spent visiting friends in other districts or quietly respecting the day.
The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was nothing special – just another day for most residents. Only Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day were celebrated, according to Mr. McCoy.
New Year’s Day Junkanoo
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, Caymanians in Bodden Town celebrated Junkanoo as they prepared for the New Year’s Day Garden Party at the Manse.
“Few people are alive today who can tell us where this age-old tradition came from, but I can say it dates way back,” Mr. McCoy said.
The ladies in their bonnets or hats and long plaid dresses and the men in khaki and bowler hats made a charming panorama on the grass as they enjoyed the joyous occasion with old friends and family.
For the Junkanoo, a few men in the community, especially the men from Gun Square, would dress up in costumes made with whatever material was handy – bits and pieces of brightly colored fabric, cow’s skin, seaweed and sea fans, and other discarded items.
The ghastly Junkanoo face mask was made from a dried-out whitewashed cow’s head. Pieces of dried coconut bark were used for the hair and beard. An old straw hat tied with thatch string finished the get-up.
“We were really scared of the Junkanoos as they came riding down the street, especially when it was getting dark” Mr. McCoy said.
Blowing cow horns, banging on homemade cowskin drums and shaking tambourines, the Junkanoos would parade through the district collecting money for the church with a band of revelers in tow.
Those were made up of adults and children following the horse as they wove their way through the streets of the community on their way to the Webster Memorial United Church where the New Year’s Garden Party was being held.
The garden party was an amazing event and one that was waited upon all year with great anticipation. It was exciting and great fun, especially for us children who looked forward to watching the ladies dance the Maypole.
A main draw was the town’s auctioneer selling off the most prized produce and fruits. For the occasion, everyone had saved the best of produce, craft or homemade food to be on display during auction time.
Some overzealous bidders often paid triple for what the produce was worth, because they knew all the proceeds would go to a good cause, the church fund.
The children also got to sample the delicious homemade peppermint and coconut candies and cakes.
The Junkanoo was the highlight of the whole holiday season, Mr. McCoy said. “If there were 10 cars on the island, all 10 of them would be in Bodden Town for the party on New Year’s Day,” he said.
A dance at the Town Hall, the lighting of lots of firecrackers, thunderbolts and cherry bombs wrapped in decorated Chinese paper, food and drinks ended the season’s festivities with a bang.