Celebrations of Christmas past

Phillip Sciamonte and children Malachi and Sari drag a Christmas tree from the beach, a tradition carried on from earlier days in Cayman. Photo: Jewel Levy

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 traditional Caymanian Christmas.

During the Christmas season, everyone would get together for the preparations. Cows and pigs were selected and set aside for slaughter. The best pieces of yam, cassava and sweet potato would be harvested. Getting all this done for Christmas was hard work but good fun; it was something everyone looked forward to and lent a helping hand.

Farmers harvested the crops while the ladies cooked and cleaned the house. Each member of the household had his or her allotted task. Firewood was also collected to cook the heavy cakes, stew beef and pork.

Sand backing
White sand yards – gardens covered in Cayman’s pristine powder-white sand and decorated with conch shells – was the traditional way to decorate for the festive season. This tradition was carried out mostly by children, who, in return, would earn some spending money for Christmas.

Equipped with thatch baskets and paint cans, the children would ‘back sand’ all through the night. In the morning it 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 colours lit up like a Christmas tree.

Phillip Sciamonte and children Malachi and Sari drag a Christmas tree from the beach, a tradition carried on from earlier days in Cayman. Photo: Jewel Levy

Christmas tree
The Christmas tree – a weeping willow, casuarina or rosemary bush – was picked out well in advance.

Finding and cutting a ‘real’ Christmas tree was a tradition everyone looked forward to back in the day. Children would walk miles to find out their favourite tree, dragging it along the beach so the limbs would not get damaged.

Empty paint cans were filled with sand to serve as a tree stand.

Decorations were handmade for the tree, such as ribbons, seashells, stringed popcorn, homemade rag dolls, wildflowers, silver thatch ornaments and wooden toys.

A few lit candles were placed on the window ledge to illuminate the tree and surrounding area.

Christmas beef
The preparation of the mouthwatering cuts of seasoned beef and pork was an art form in itself, with recipes lovingly handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. There were no McCormick’s spices or refrigeration back then, but the food sure did taste good.

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 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 was added to the mix and rubbed into the beef and pork. Cow’s fat was used as oil to cook the meats. Some older folks say the fat would preserve the beef throughout the holidays.

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 ground and the same Dutch pot stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar, a pinch of parched cinnamon, grated nutmeg, coconut milk and grated cassava, yam, sweet potato or pumpkin was used.

You could smell and taste Christmas in the air when these foods were cooking. So heady were the aromas that they seemed to seep into the very woodwork itself, leaving an after-smell long after Christmas had passed.

Church concerts and carolling were popular in old time Cayman. Here, the tradition continues as the Red Bay Church of God Holiness carolling trailer spreads holiday cheer.

Church service
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 festive season, along with quadrille dancing and parties. All the churches organised concerts that the children would take part in. At the concerts, the children would 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 seamen returned home for the holidays.

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