Old Cayman Christmas memories

Islanders recall the festive seasons of yesteryear

Christmas on South Church Street, 1950s. From left, Ermyn, Hurley, Verdie, Daireen and Zelma Lee Merren. - Photo: Courtesy of Terri Merren

There is an Old Cayman Facebook group that regularly posts a treasure trove of pictures and memories from days gone by. We reached out to members of the group to ask them what they remembered about Christmas in Cayman when they were young. These are the wonderful responses we received.

Getting the tree
Many locals got their Christmas trees by going out to find the perfect live one and bring it home.

“Going to South Sound to cut down our Christmas tree. It was our tradition. There was a little spot of land in the seaside between the dock and South Sound.” – Sheila Woods

“Yes, it was a tradition in our home also.” – Dena Scott-Powell

“We used to go to South Sound to cut down our Christmas tree too – we did that for many years.” – Katie Moore

“I remember going and picking our Christmas tree, decorating it with paper ornaments we made and coloured, in different shapes. We would join together dyed popcorn on thread and string them around the tree in different colours (eating the popcorn while doing that task and getting a good slap for eating it [laughs]). [We would even use] newspaper to wrap the gifts when one set of the Christmas paper was finished. Oh, the fireworks out in town on Christmas Eve, and the smell of apples would be so strong.
Such sweet memories of a simpler life but we had lots of fun. So much we used to do those days, preparing for Christmas.” – Rina Ebanks

“We always had balloons on the tree as decoration as well; usually by Christmas most had burst or deflated [laughs] but it was beautiful to us. And yes, the smell of apples meant it was Christmas for sure. Also, getting a couple of cases of mixed canned sodas, oh my…what a delight!”
– Shirley Jackson

“Our cousin Bertley and grand-uncle Capt. Cadion both had trucks, so off to South Sound we’d go to get the Christmas tree. When we returned, we had our paint can filled with sand waiting for it.
“We decorated the tree with our seashells and strips of cloth from Mama’s rag bag as she was a seamstress!” – Velma Powery-Hewitt

“Christmas was, for me, a pine limb decorated with whatever we could find. No popcorn, a little tinsel, no gifts, but a wonderful time decorating the yard with white sand and conch shells and the living room walls with Sears catalogues (Christmas wallpaper) which made the roaches happy, because they used wet flour as glue [laughs].”
– Evart Jackson

Decorating the yard
With no snow to speak of, islanders still ended up with sparkling white yards, thanks to help from some beach sand.

“Our father used to pack all my siblings and cousins in back of his truck and drive to Seven Mile Beach. We would use old paint cans to load up the truck with sand to dump and spread in our front yard for Christmas morning – it was always so exciting. I guess it was our version of ‘snow’, but for us as children it just added to the excitement of Christmas and was the most beautiful sight on Christmas morning.” – Shirley Jackson

“Yes, I remember we would clear the old sand out of the yard, then we would pour the new sand in small piles, but we wouldn’t spread it until about the middle of December because we wanted clean sand for Christmas.”
– Rachel Ebanks

“In October we would start tidying the backyard and taking up sand from the front yard to spread there. Then we waited for the moonlit nights and me and my younger siblings joined our cousins and neighbourhood children to ‘back’ sand from Sand Hole Rd.
“We, the older ones, had the larger ground baskets and our smaller siblings carried a smaller bag, whilst the wee ones carried a paint can. There were little mounds of white sand strategically placed in the front yard and fresher conch shells to brighten up the walkway from the road to the door.
“Now, the week before Christmas, all those pretty little piles of sand were gently smoothened with a rosemary broom attached to a stick by thatch string and voila! a beautiful Cayman Christmas yard.”
– Velma Powery-Hewitt

Remembering loved ones
Those who had passed were not forgotten, and graves are still visited and treated with tender loving care around the holidays.

“Has anyone mentioned going to look for the family graves and painting them and putting fresh flowers on them at Christmas (and Easter)? My dad does it – or, lately, has it done – every year and I’ve learned where most of our family graves in West Bay cemetery are so that I can take it over when I need to. A few of our older family graves are covered with sand and ringed with conch shells.” – Charles D. Bush

“We still do, but when I was growing up, we went to the cemetery to put on fresh sand. We would go down to the beach and back the fresh sand, remove the old sand and replace it with the fresh clean sand then place the new bouquet on it.”
– Rachel Ebanks

Santa’s coming to town
No matter how he got here, Santa always made an appearance on the island, either arriving by plane, or riding on a truck through George Town, distributing candy.

“That truck was for a gentleman by the name of Lemmuel McLaughlin from East End, and the Santa Claus on it was Bill [McTaggart]. Santa use to come in on the Cayman Brac plane, then they would leave from the airport and drive through town, throwing out candies.” – Julie Brown

“I remember back in the days when they first started, it would also include toys and not just candies.” – Rina Ebanks

“They also had a band on it. Boveble was the drummer, Ken Davis played the saxophone, Radley [Gourzong] played the violin and Skanky was the singer. Good, good Christmases.” – Julie Brown

“Lemmuel McLaughlin was also known as ‘Hot Water’ on the docks, founder of the trucking company Mack & Son. [He was] tougher than nails – [he] could lift a 55-gallon drum of kerosene oil up on his truck by himself. That was his other nickname – ‘Forklift’ – one of the last of Cayman’s iron men [smiles].” – Evart Jackson

“Uncle Bill McTaggart was Santa Claus at ByRite supermarket [in George Town]. My sister and I would get in the line for a gift over and over again [laughs]. He never said ‘no’ when we held out our hand for yet another gift [laughs].” – Shirley Jackson

“In central George Town, I remember Charles Barnes’ bus would take us to the airport to see Santa arrive by plane. He would then drive around the districts, throwing out candies for the kids.” – El Rey

“My best Christmas memories were going to the Public Beach and waiting for Santa to arrive. He would arrive in the back of a pickup truck, decked out in his red and white suit, and toss handfuls of candies to all the waiting kids … ‘Now and Laters’, and those little square bubble gums that had a tattoo under the wrapper that you needed to chew for about 20 minutes before it got soft enough to blow a bubble.”
– Tiffany Vere

“Santa would come to Tortuga … think it was Uncle Bill … and give out presents to the East End kids. We were Santa’s helpers.”
– Sheree L. Ebanks

“Don’t know how long it’s been going on for, but I think it’s a longstanding tradition in Cayman Brac. Every Christmas afternoon, the Lions Club members, accompanied by Santa in a truck, drive around the Island giving out gifts and candy to all the kids.”
– Dena Scott-Powell

Things were scarce on the island back in the day, with only a handful of shops selling toys. Certain fruits or food items were particularly rare, which made them a special treat at Christmas.

“I would work in my grandfather’s store (Bodden’s Dept. Store) until all hours on Christmas Eve. Everyone would be in town shopping and the kids would be lighting fireworks.” – Selma Lee Arch

“Mr. Willie Bodden’s … what a treat; it was toy heaven. Remember the creaky stairs?”
– Shirley Jackson

“I recall dodging the fireworks being thrown around as we ran between Bodden’s Dept. Store, which was always filled with shoppers on Christmas Eve, and Comart, Hobbies & Books and Ms. Naomi’s store etc. to see what gifts we could purchase with our little pocket money made from working in the store.” – Andrea Bodden

“I remember the first time I got a piece of ice. It was during Christmas, and I was trying for it not to melt. What a delight [smiles].”
– Ernestina Cole

“I remember backing sand for our yard, spreading it and making sure every spot was covered, and the smell of apples, and the heavy cakes cooked on the caboose with heaps of coals on the cover … Lord have mercy [smiles].” – Uldeen Evans

“The only time that we saw grapes and apples was Christmas time. We also ate [beef] and pork once a year – again, at Christmas time.” – Julie Brown

“True; before you even entered the store, you knew Christmas was in the air, not because of the decorations but the aroma of the apples and grapes. That was the only time you got them.” – Rachel Ebanks

“We cleaned our home top to bottom and mama brought out the chenille bedspread and the lacy tablecloth. Shoes were checked and repaired and new laces were bought, if needed. We were blessed if we each got a new dress or shirt and just perhaps too there would be the addition of some ribbon for our hair and a new dress hat or handbag for mama.” – Velma Powery-Hewitt

One of the most magical shared memories was of singing carols whilst travelling on the backs of trucks, or the sound of distant drummers slowly getting louder as they approached the houses.

“I [remember] my dad Graham driving us to South Sound to get that perfect tree, standing it in a bucket of sand, and decorating it with anything we could find. Also, the group who walked the streets playing harmonicas and anything that made music.” – Merrell McCann

“I remember going to Sunset House on Christmas Eve, getting in a big, open-bed truck with seats with a lot of people, and driving around Christmas carolling. We went to the hospital and sang for the patients. That’s about all I remember, as I think a lot of rum punches were involved before we set out [laughs].”
– Susanna Wren

“Two or three in the morning, out on the flat bed [truck], singing Chrismas carols, and people sitting outside their homes joining in.” – Carol Baillie

“Children singing Christmas carols on the school bus on our half-days for the Christmas break. Cayman beef in the outside caboose with the cassava cake. Cow tripe hanging out to dry, then we roasted it. My little piece of East End memories. And, of course, all the family at grandma’s house.” – Monica Rankine

“I think about six families were involved with their small children [when we went out one night]. We piled onto the back of our truck with Alastair [Paterson] or Nat Duckworth playing the keyboard. We had about five stops where we knew that a glass of wine at the end was our reward … or bribe for us to leave [laughs]. The children stood at the front with the parents behind, all singing our hearts out.” – Meg Paterson

“Of course, we can’t forget the Christmas carols and plays at church. Mama Grace made our wings from wire hangers. You’d be practising your part or role from late October thru November, each Saturday evening. I can see Mr. Bertie Ebanks pumping the organ and Ms. Lillias, Ms. Lizzie and Ms. Sylvia getting us thru the practice for the play. The plays were all so much fun and the churches were all full.
“Another part of the festivities [was going] out singing Christmas carols. Folks would be outside in their yards as we drove by and the whole neighbourhood would be joining in the singing. Sometimes a few more jumped on the truck bed, making it all the more merry and bright. It was a truly a happy time and as I write, I still hear Mr. Duxey Ebanks on his fiddle and Papa Chauncey Ebanks playing the mouth organ.”
– Velma Powery-Hewitt

“One of my favourite memories was the ‘marching road band’. The men would come walking down School House Road with a wheelbarrow in tow, collecting any and all alcoholic beverages. James Thomas on the saxophone and Nooksie on the drums. Other instruments I remember were the harmonica and grater. I can remember a few of the men:
Mr. Coolidge, Mr. Rudel, Mr. Murray. They would stop in front of our house to play for my grandfather Lorraine. Everybody in the neighbourhood would come out to listen and give them a little something in the wheelbarrow.” – Siri D. Jones-Russell

“They would come by the police station in town and play for us also.”
– Rina Ebanks

“We called them the ‘Marchers’ and as kids we would be awoken in the wee hours of the morning by the beat of their drums. As they got closer and closer, we glued our faces to the window in anticipation of their arrival. We would hear them at my Uncle John’s singing out, ‘Three cheers for John Franklin! Hip, hip, hurray!’ when he gave them rum. And then it was on to my grandfather’s (Willie Bodden), then finally to our house. My dad gave them money and they would repeat the ‘Three cheers for Bunny Bodden!’ After they left, we went back to bed, falling asleep to the sounds of the drums fading in the distance and anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus.” – Andrea Bodden

“That is exactly how I remember it too…the sound in the distance of those marchers drumming and getting closer and closer to our house was the most exciting sound on earth for us. Well, it was a tie between that and the early morning banging of pots and pans as our parents would start making Christmas cakes and all the delicious food for Christmas Day.
“Daddy would always have a little bottle hidden away from us children to give the drummers. They would sing the ‘hip, hip, hooray, for he’s a jolly good fellow’ song over and over and we’d be peeping through the window behind the curtains. It’s a memory that we talk about every Christmas.” – Shirley Jackson

Merry Christmas!

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