Christmas is celebrated differently across the world. Giving and sharing with the less privileged, kissing under the mistletoe, hiding brooms on Christmas Eve to prevent witches from stealing them for a midnight ride, illuminating gardens with Christmas lights and Santa, placing garlic and candy in the shoes of the naughty and the nice respectively, or spotting Elf on the shelf are just a few traditions associated with the festive season.
An old time Caymanian Christmas meant freshly spread white sand in yards lined with vibrant pink conch shells, family gatherings and church services, aromatic apples from North America, merry folk marching while singing carols or playing in kitchen bands and of course, succulent Christmas beef coupled with a feast of mouth-watering side dishes and spiced sorrel.
Dreaming of a White Christmas
The Islands’ fine powdery white sand made it easy to achieve the dream of a white Christmas. Through the tradition of “backing sand”, locals would gather the whitest sand from beaches and the iron shore coastline in handmade thatch baskets, and transport it to their yards where they carefully created little piles that would be spread the night before Christmas. Having an attractive sand yard was a top priority, and many would go as far as creating various patterns and designs with a handmade rosemary broom. Bright pink conch shells neatly arranged around the house and pathways added the finishing touch, along with a humble Sisal Christmas tree with handmade thatch and shell ornaments.
Where’s the Beef?
Back in the day, the protein staple was mostly sea based; fish and other seafood was consumed daily and was considered common food. Not everyone could afford to own a beef cow, making this the most prized animal in those days – a delicacy reserved for special occasions like Christmas and New Year’s Day. Authentic island cuisine customarily served at Christmastime consisted of slow cooked ‘stew beef’ and pork (sometimes mixed together), ‘stew turtle’ and corned turtle, lobster and ‘stew conch’. Starches such as yams, plantains, coco and cassava were also served as part of the main entree. The preparation of delectable beef and pork was an art and cooking on the old-time caboose required patience. Fruit cakes soaked in rum and sweet heavy cakes and stretchers made of cassava and yam were served as dessert. Spiced sorrel was the signature beverage served for Christmas, and it is still a hit today.
Music in the Air
Locals have fond memories of the days when the Christmas air was filled with the sounds of fiddlers, drummers, grater-scrapers and maracas shakers; ‘kitchen bands’ congregated in kitchens (of course!) and yards playing a blend of original and imported tunes brought home by the mariners. Anyone filled with the joy of music created a festive atmosphere all throughout the Islands.
Christmas means Family
Christmas was an exceptionally special time as many of Cayman’s seamen returned home for the holidays. Spending time together was the center of the festive merriment. Gifts were few, and what was given was usually handmade and practical. Some children might have received mouth organs (harmonicas), socks (a coveted item) or a shiny apple or orange, which was only available at this time of year.
Donned in their Sunday best (some lucky ones had new clothes), church on Christmas day was mandatory for everyone. Churches organized concerts and children would recite Christmas poems and sing carols. If you didn’t attend church regularly through the year, you would do your best to attend service on this special day with your family.
Elements of the traditional Cayman Christmas experience remains alive today in the preparation of fresh local meats and produce, in community events like ‘Christmas of Yesteryear’ at ‘Miss Lassie’s House’ in South Sound, where you can re-enact the experience of backing sand and with the uplifting church services held on all three islands. Look closely while driving around the community, and you will see families congregating at light displays and homes dotted throughout with clean sand and lovely pink conch shells. For the sounds of Christmas, pick up a copy of Traditional Music of the Cayman Islands or the more contemporary kitchen band sounds of Swanky Kitchen Band. We hope we’ve conjured up warm memories of your own family Christmas traditions, and wish you all a magical and blessed holiday season.