Irie (origin: Jamaican Patois). Definition [adjective]: good, pleasant, happy
Christmas was coming, and I was excited! We’d been living in Jamaica for four years now. In those years, I had adapted to many of the cultural differences between our new life here and our old life in California.
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December 1996, Ocean View Bible Camp, parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, West Indies
Table of Contents
“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way…”
Our first Christmas in Jamaica had been beyond difficult. We had only been on the island for two months, and were still getting to know our local neighbors and church members. We were thousands of miles away from our grandparents and cousins, with whom we usually spent the holidays.
On top of that, most of our belongings (including all our traditional Christmas stockings, ornaments, decorations and so on) were still on a shipping boat somewhere en route to us. We were incredibly homesick that first Christmas in Jamaica. I knew that things would be so much better this time!
A busy December
(I have included here a video of my school song from my Jamaican high school. Enjoy!)
Schools in Jamaica took an entire month off for Christmas and New Year’s Day. I finished my first trimester final exams the first week of December. I had already enjoyed two weeks of glorious freedom to rest and prepare to celebrate my favorite holiday.
At our local church, we had been practicing for a Christmas program performance for weeks already. It was the event of the year in our remote agricultural community— on a par with funerals and weddings. No one would even think of missing the free desserts and entertainment!
Best of all, my parents had invited everyone from our church to come for a Christmas Eve dinner and singalong at our house. Singing, friends, food— I loved it all, and had been eagerly counting the days. This was going to be a memorable holiday!
Feeding a crowd
Preparing food for close to a hundred people was a daunting task! However, Mom did it regularly as part of her work at the Bible camp. Dad, myself, and my brothers were all working on various tasks in the days leading up to Christmas Eve to get ready.
Mom baked dozens of Christmas cookies and treats, both American favorites, and Jamaican traditional desserts. My favorite cookies were the shortbread cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and melting moments (a sandwich cookie). Mom had filled cookie tins with each kind!
The smells of warm butter, vanilla, and chocolate had filled our house for days.
In our first four years in Jamaica, Mom learned to modify her recipes to account for slightly different ingredients. Dad drove all the way to Mandeville (an hour away) to find real butter for the cookies, and other specific ingredients that weren’t available in our local shops.
Most Jamaicans used margarine, not butter, because refrigerated transportation was not readily available to our remote area. White sugar was expensive, so we used local brown sugar. Jamaican brown sugar was more like turbinado sugar than our American, dark brown, packable sugar.
My great-aunt Rose, who sent us a box of American goodies for every American holiday, included several bags of chocolate chips in each of her boxes. Chocolate chips were expensive in Jamaica, if you could find them at all! My mom rationed them out, only using half the amount of chocolate chips as the recipe called for in each batch. That way they would last a long time.
Mom was also making a gingerbread house. Many of our traditional American cookies were strange to our Jamaican friends. Most Jamaicans in our area were suspicious of new foods, and would not even try them.
I could not understand the aversion. I had spent the last four years eating foods that were completely different than the ones I grew up with!
Gingerbread was a notable exception to this general unwillingness to experiment with new foods. Every Jamaican friend who tried Mom’s gingerbread declared it amazing. Mom had doubled or tripled the ginger in the original recipe, since ginger was readily available and used in many Jamaican foods and drinks.
Her sweet, slightly spicy, gingerbread cookies disappeared as fast as she could bake them!
So Mom was baking the large pieces needed to create a gingerbread house scene for the Christmas Eve event. I still remembered the beautiful edible gingerbread house scene she and her best friend Auntie Gigi had created one Christmas back in California. I knew this was going to be a showstopper!
Making the gingerbread house
As I helped Mom to carefully break up the large pieces of baked gingerbread slabs, we encountered a problem. The gingerbread had a tendency to bend and break, rather than snap apart. The unrelenting island humidity was de-crisping the gingerbread!
Still Mom and I persisted, and after baking a second batch managed to get enough large pieces to build the house. No one complained about eating the broken leftovers.☺️
Then we mixed up the stiff frosting to use as glue for the house. I carefully spread it along the corners and edges, then had to hold pieces together and wait for the frosting to harden. Again, this took longer than anticipated, but eventually we assembled all the pieces into the shape of a house.
Philip, Joel, Beth and I decorated carefully. We used some assorted colorful hard candies Mom had obtained locally. We also added the special mini candy canes Aunt Rose had thoughtfully included in her latest box.
Visions of sugar plums
Side note: Aunt Rose was no less than a miracle worker in the eyes of us children. She calculated that in order for us to receive the boxes before the holiday, she had to mail them over two months beforehand!
So that’s exactly what she did— and after 4 years of receiving Christmas cards from other friends at the end of January, Aunt Rose’s pre-planning was impressive to us.
Aunt Rose also mailed things that would not easily melt or go bad if they were exposed to excessive heat and humidity during their long trip. The chocolate in her boxes was often discolored from having melted somewhat and re-hardening along the way, but at least it wasn’t stale tasting.
We had given up on buying Snickers, Crunch bars, or Hershey’s locally. Several times we had bought American candy bars when we found them at a local store. We tore into them excitedly— only to spit them into the garbage can because of rancid peanuts or stale, soggy rice krispies!
The day before Christmas Eve we started preparing the food. We finished our gingerbread house on December 22nd. Mom set it on top of the china credenza next to the dining table. The other cookie tins and plates of cake were neatly stacked and arranged around the gingerbread house.
We covered the gingerbread house with lots of plastic wrap. It needed protection from the humidity, the sugar ants, and our scrawny cat. She would eat anything edible that was left unattended!
Goat husbandry in Jamaica
My goat, Midnight Mist, had delivered her first male kid earlier in the year, and he was now fully grown. Male goats in Jamaica were obnoxious and smelly. They were prone to butt anyone who came within reach of their horns, even the owner!
My ram kid, Little Deer, was no exception. I knew as soon as he was born that he was headed for the pot eventually.
Curried goat is traditional meal for Christmas in Jamaica, along with mannish water—a spicy soup made from the parts of the goat that don’t go into the curry. I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that the goat that I had raised was going to provide this special meal for the entire community to enjoy.
Trigger Warning ⚠️ : butchering description (skip down to the row of stars to avoid this part)
The butcher arrived as soon as the sun was properly up, large knife in hand. Killing a goat and preparing the food for the big Christmas Eve dinner was an all-day affair. The butcher was a local farmer. It was customary to give him the goat skin and a hunk of meat as payment for his services.
My brothers and I wanted to watch the process. This was not the first butchering we were going to observe, and it was always a fascinating event. I was planning to become a doctor, so any opportunity to study anatomy was always interesting for me.
The butcher tied ropes to the hind feet of my goat, and looped the ropes over a strong branch of the giant rubber tree near our house. Then he hoisted the goat into the air so that the goat was hanging head down from the branch, and secured the front legs with another rope. I turned my head away as the butcher brought the big knife near.
A short bleat told me that the deed was done. I rubbed away a tear from my eye quickly, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a sissy, or weak. Livestock were simply food in the eyes of the local farming community, not pets—many of our neighbors thought we were crazy to keep a cat as an indoor pet!
Preparing the meat
The butcher set aside the goat’s head to be used to flavor the mannish water. He carefully removed the skin and my brothers stretched it out to dry.
The carcass was split down the middle, and now it looked like regular meat the we could get at the butcher shop. After removing the innards and cutting the sides into manageable hunks, the butcher went on his way, with the skin and a big hunk of meat.
Preparing the goat was a community event. My parents had asked several members of the Staple family, who lived up the hill from our house, to come and help us. My parents had no idea how to prepare a freshly butchered goat for eating!
Miss Irene, Miss Patti, Dorothy and Sonya sat around on turned-over buckets or cinder blocks, slowly cleaning out the innards to go in the soup. This had to be done by hand as each long strip had to be turned completely inside out and washed clean of all the filth.
I watched closely as Miss Irene threaded the sections of small intestine slowly over a stick and then turned it inside out, just like a sock. She then washed it clean and moved it into the bowl for clean meat.
Curry, Soup, and Rice and Peas
Vil (Irene’s husband) and Jonesy, another neighbor, were tending to the huge vat of hot water where the goat’s head and other tough parts were boiling all day. Eventually that pot would be removed, the inedible bits strained out, and the broth would become deliciously spicy mannish water—full of flavor with chunks of chocho (chayote squash), potato and carrot.
I remembered refusing to even try mannish water my first Christmas in Jamaica. Soup made from goat leftovers was a concept that offended my urban American senses. Now, as the savory smells of thyme, goat meat and scotch bonnets wafted over the backyard, I was salivating in anticipation of my favorite soup!
While all this was happening in the backyard, Mom and some of the other women were cutting up the goat meat and seasoning it with sprigs of thyme, salt, pepper, and scallions. This would all be thrown into several cast-iron pots to simmer slowly in curry powder and coconut milk.
Curried goat with rice and peas was being cooked today, then we would reheat it in the oven the next night.
Everything with rum
Mom was also making sorrel, the traditional drink of Christmas in Jamaica. No Christmas meal would be complete without it! Sorrel (called hibiscus or “jamaica” in other countries) was made from red buds of flowers and had a tart taste, somewhat similar to cranberry.
The buds were boiled to produce a dark red liquid. Copious amounts of sugar and rum were added, along with ginger and other spices. Mom was making it without rum—we were living at a Bible camp, after all!— which had the locals shaking their heads.
Several local women had made desserts in addition to Mom’s gingerbread and cookies. There were two or three traditional Jamaican rum cakes. Rum cake, or Christmas cake, was a dried fruit cake that was nearly black in color, and tasted mostly like rum.
Ugh! I despised rum flavor. Mom, on the other hand, loved Jamaican Christmas cake— probably because it was so similar in taste to the traditional English fruitcake recipe that she knew from her Canadian upbringing. Thank goodness I had lots of other cookies to enjoy!
Christmas Eve Day
Christmas Eve day dawned sunny and warm. No rain was expected, except for the standard 20% chance of rain that was always over the whole island (according to the TV weather forecasters). Mom put me to work helping with the cleaning and setting up a buffet table inside.
The food and drinks would be served indoors. This was both for convenience, and to keep people from taking some home to eat later or share with others.
My parents had learned that it was common practice to take home an entire meal for someone else— this was a regular occurrence at the camp kitchen. That made it especially difficult to accurately estimate and prepare enough food for everyone. We didn’t want to run out of food before everyone present had eaten enough!
We had also prepared small bags of favors to give to everyone, and the bags sat ready on the table. A tangerine, a few cookies, and a peppermint candy were all novelties to most of our neighbors.
Most people would be eating outside, since our house was only large enough for our family to move around comfortably. We had borrowed a couple of wooden benches from the camp chapel, but most people would sit or stand around the yard. That was customary for large events anyhow, as long as there was no rain.
Dad had gathered lumber scraps and dry brush to make a campfire in the front yard under the guinep tree. The huge, spreading, guinep tree shaded the entire yard, and in some places dirt patches had developed that never seemed to grow grass.
Dad set a few concrete cinder blocks in a loose circle over a dry dirt patch to create a makeshift fire pit. The weather was comfortably warm, so the fire was mostly for light. In the remote country area we lived in, streetlights and exterior building lights were few and far between.
Christmas Eve Celebration
The sun set around 6 pm, and people started arriving in little groups. Each person was given a plate of food and a cup of mannish water or sorrel to begin with. They spread themselves around the yard, sitting on the three foot wall that ran most of the perimeter of our yard, or along the raised garden bed walls.
Soon a lively game of dominoes was going in the carport at a folding table. Dominoes in Jamaica was unlike any game I had ever seen before. Generally the men were the only ones playing, and it was played with the seriousness of a poker game.
When one of the men was making his play, he would slam the domino down on the table! There might be some chatting amongst the players, or amongst the onlookers, but not much.
I found it boring, both to watch and to play. Double six dominoes did not seem to require much strategy as far as I could see, but my guy friends insisted that there was more to it. These were the same friends who would watch five-day cricket test matches without a second thought! My skepticism seemed justified.
@dinkumtribe Sports were serious business in Jamaica- which was strange for me because my family and local community back in California didn’t care much about sports. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe #missionarykidproblems #missionarykid #missionarykids #missionarykidlife #cultureshock #cultureshocks #jamerican🇯🇲🇺🇸 #jamericantiktok🇯🇲 #worldcupfootball #crickettestmatch ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel
By 7:30 pm, dozens of empty paper soup cups and paper plates were shrinking as they burned in the fire. People milled around the house, front yard, and back yard, chatting in little groups. The evening was punctuated with laughter and happy chatter from every direction, or shouts as someone slammed down the winning domino.
I was slurping my second cup of mannish water (what a treat!), as I wandered from conversation to conversation. The plates of cookies and cake inside the house were nearly empty, and I saw only crumbs of the gingerbread house.
Mom, Miss Brenda, and Miss Dorothy, were working on the massive pile of pots while catching up on neighborhood news and stories.
Christmas Carol Singalong
A group formed around the fire, holding one of the two printed hymnbooks we happened to have available. The church guitarist started strumming, and several of the women and young people started singing Christmas carols from the book, and from memory.
Songs with repeated choruses, like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” were ideal for this kind of group sing-along. The people close enough to see the words from the firelight (and a borrowed flashlight) sang the verses, then everyone joined in the chorus. Since I knew most of these favorite carols by heart anyway, I found a spot nearby and joined in joyfully.
The favorite song of the evening was “The Little Drummer Boy.” Only one or two people knew all the words to this one, but they sang loudly. Everyone else could join in on the “pa rum pa pum pum”, so we all sang enthusiastically.
Frequent peals of laughter as someone mistakenly sang the wrong words made for a lot of fun! “Getting it right” was nowhere near as important as enjoying the moment.
Joy, peace, love, friendship.
It was a beautiful evening. With little light pollution, the stars truly were “brightly shining”.
Singing about riding in a one-horse open sleigh while the warm breeze blew through the coconut trees was laughable. And yet, the joy, and warm-hearted acceptance, and love that flowed that evening between my family and our Jamaican friends and neighbors was real. In those moments, that’s all that mattered.
Twenty-five years later, it is still one of my happiest Christmas memories.
© Copyright 2021 Jennifer D. Warren