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CHRISTMAS

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  • Christmas Home
  • Christmas of Yesteryear
  • Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago
  • Local Traditions
  • Christmas Recipes
  • Christmas Symbols
  • References

Christmas is the festival that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is observed by various Christian denominations and is the most widely celebrated festival worldwide. The word Christmas is derived from the Old English word Cristes Masse which means Christ's Mass.

It is unclear exactly when Jesus Christ - whose life and teachings are the foundation of mainstream Christianity - was born, but most Christian calendars observe December 25th as the date of his birth. The first commemoration of December 25th as the birth of Christ was held in the fourth century AD. This date was chosen by Pope Julius I (337-352), and coincided with a pagan feast celebrated by the Romans.

December 25th was selected as the birth date of Jesus Christ because March 25th, which was the pagan festival of spring, was perceived to be the date of his conception. By adding nine months to that date, it was assumed therefore, that Jesus Christ was born on December 25th.

In many churches, the Christmas season begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the Sunday nearest to November 30th, and continues until Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Advent was the time of preparation for Christ's Nativity. This is followed by the twelve days of Christmas, December 25th to January 6th. The last day of Christmas, January 6th (Epiphany), represents the day that the Three Wise Men arrived to pay homage to the baby Jesus.


THE ANNUNCIATION
The early chapters of the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke described the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ the Son of God. It was written that the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town called Nazareth, to a maiden who was betrothed to a man called Joseph. The maiden's name was Mary. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, for you have found favour in God's sight. You will conceive and bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High".


THE BIRTH
"After Jesus in the sixth month, was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him'. - Matthew 2:1 (NIV)

CHRISTMAS PREPARATION

Christmas of yesteryear is similar in many ways to Christmas of today. Significant in both times are the preparation, food, music, the warmth and love of the community. Many months before Christmas, preparations for this festival would begin. In rural communities, local farmers and individual households would rear pigs in anticipation of receiving pork or ham at Christmas - special fare for most people.

For children then, as it is for children today, Christmas was a special time, with expectations of receiving gifts of toys and new clothing. Local shops and merchants would have displays of assorted toys alongside exquisite, brightly coloured materials, along with decorations for stores and homes.

Homes owned by various families - whether rich, middle class or poor - would be cleaned thoroughly and painted with new coats of whitewash. While male members of the household attended to the painting, polishing, yard cleaning and repairs, the female members of the household would focus on cleaning and decorating the inside of the house, sewing new curtains, and preparing food, drinks and homemade liqueur (syrup with rum and prunes and other ingredients).

FOOD PREPARATION

Preparation of many Christmas foods began as early as August. For the traditional fruit cake, cherries, raisins and prunes were de-seeded, minced and placed in a ceramic jar of rum mixed with red port and cherry brandy to marinate until Christmas Eve, when the jar would be opened and its contents used in the baking of the fruit cake. This method of preparing the fruitcake is a custom adopted from the English who colonized Trinidad and Tobago.

Ginger beer is another beverage that was, and still is, a taste pleaser on the list of drinks at Christmas time. In the 'old time' days, dried ginger was used (unlike the 'green' ginger which is used today for making gingerbeer). It was pounded in a mortar to a fine dust, then steeped in boiling water and sweetened. Drops of barley were mixed into it.

Boiled ham was prepared using the pitch oil tin method. Salted overnight, the ham was drained and boiled on a pitch oil (kerosene) stove. After the ham was cooked the skin was used to cook the callaloo and pigeon peas.

Christmas is not Christmas until one has Ponche de Crème on one's drinking menu. This drink is a Trinidadian version of the North American eggnog. Eggs, milk, aromatic bitters, rum and spices, are the ingredients for the favourite ponche de crème.

Pastelle was brought to us by the Panyol (Hispanic) people from Venezuela. Dry, whole-grain corn was used, as there were no commercially packaged brands in those days. The corn was boiled, drained and then crushed in a mill until it formed a moist dough. Still in use today is the fig (banana) leaf used for wrapping the meat-filled pastelle. Assorted meats such as pork, beef, or even a mixture of both, were marinated in fresh seasonings and roucou (annato) to complete the making of the pastelle. This is a tradition that has been kept alive to this day.

ENTERTAINMENT

Entertainment then, as today, was through music, song and dance - in the form of parang. With chac chacs (maracas), a cuatro and a guitar, people in different communities travelled throughout the villages serenading the locals with parang songs. This aspect of the Christmas season is still kept alive today. These paranderos (wandering minstrels) would find a ready audience and willing hospitality in the form of food and drinks. Candles were also lit to accommodate the entertainers and their loyal followers. In order to entertain an audience to their delight, paranderos would practise their singing weeks before the festivities.

Cantique de Noel is the name given to the carols sung in French patois (broken French). These songs were inherited from the early French settlers, and were passed on in some communities from generation to generation. Those who were not exposed to the French Patois learnt these Cantiques by memorizing the words. To exclude a friend’s home while paranging was an absolute offence. If that friend ever happened to see the paranderos, they would have to give a good reason why they did not visit their friend's house and entertain his/her family.

While some people entertained and were entertained, others would go to mass to celebrate the more religious aspect of Christmas - that is, the birth of Jesus Christ. After the church services, many would retire to their homes to spend time with their families. Others would visit their friends and families, in the spirit of love and fellowship.

CHRISTMAS IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

According to historical records Christmas was first observed in Trinidad in 1569. The festival was celebrated by six priests of the order of Observantines headed by Fr. Miguel Diosdados (Reyes). They visited several villages and were treated to local cuisine.

 Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is a very joyous occasion. Families commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ by going to church. For many this means an annual pilgrimage to church on Christmas Eve to celebrate Midnight Mass. Christmas is also a memorable event that is celebrated by large gatherings of families and friends. Sumptuous meals are prepared, and visitors are invited to partake of the feast. These visitors include not only friends and family, but also those groups of people who go from house to house serenading the members of the home with indigenous Spanish carols, known as Parang.

These groups, similar to European and American carolers, are called Paranderos, and they sing traditional Parang songs. They trek through neighbourhoods, evoking the spirit of the season with joyful melodies and infectious rhythms. The cuatro, bass box, mandolin, ‘chac-chac’ (maracas), flutes, tambourines, guitar and other instruments are all used to accompany the Paranderos. The vibrant rhythms of Parang music encourage one and all to sing along. The Paranderos are rewarded for their performances with Christmas food & drink offered by the host of the house.

Traditional food served at Christmas time consists of generous helpings of ham, turkey, pastelles, fruit cake, sweet breads, and other selected delicacies, along with traditional drinks such as sorrel, ginger beer, and ponche de crème.

Christmas is a very important time in Trinidad &Tobago. It is the fusion of the end of year excitement while ushering the imminent Carnival season. It is a time when loved ones gather to reminisce on the past year while celebrating the presence of each other. It is a time of food and drink, music and celebration, and peace and love, as the birth of Christ is honoured and celebrated.

LOCAL TRADITIONS

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is a special occasion. Foreign traditions have interwoven with local customs and practices across places, time and communities.

The following customs are maintained:

CHRISTMAS CARDS

It is customary to send cards to friends, co-workers and relations during the Christmas season. On many cards, non-tropical themes of Christmas (e.g. snow and sleighs) tend to predominate over local ones. This persists because the cards are often produced abroad. In recent time however, locally produced cards have included the Caribbean flavour in their layout.  

CLEANING AND DECORATING

Homes are given elaborate preparation beforehand by cleaning, painting and general repairs. According to budget and taste, new curtains may be made and hung, and various decorations from the simple to the elaborate may be seen festooning homes. It is an annual ritual for many people to not only engage in cleaning and decorating, but to make last-minute preparations and purchases on Christmas Eve.

Various public places and homes may be given over to elaborate embellishments with wreaths, garlands, lights and Christmas trees etc. A popular thematic depiction is the creche: a nativity scene of the Three Wise Men, Mary, Joseph and Jesus as a baby in the manger.

GIFTS

Christmas is known as the 'Season of Giving'. A traditional custom is the giving of gifts either on Christmas Day, December 25th or in some cases before this day. These may be given not only to friends and relations but also to those in need.

HOSPITALITY

Visitors to the average household during the Christmas season are normally treated to local fare by way of food, drinks and music. Invitations from friends and neighbours are normally accepted in the period between Christmas and New Year's Day.

MUSIC

Two types of music are associated with the Christmas season. There are the traditional hymns and Christmas carols, and Parang music. Both types may have either a religious or non-religious theme.

There are basically two types of our indigenous folk music - French and Spanish parang. The French parang or creche is no longer as widely sung as the parang of Spanish origin, but can still be heard in villages with a strong French influence. Renditions of parang, our popular folk music, is part of our Spanish heritage and originated over 400 years ago during Spanish colonization.

 

In the past, it was traditional for parang serenaders to pay nocturnal visits to the homes of family and friends, where part of the fun was waking the inhabitants of the household from their beds. Today, a new form of parang, soca parang, has emerged. Soca parang is a combination of soca and parang.

CHRISTMAS RECIPES
Christmas comes only once a year and so do many of the foods prepared during this season. A longstanding tradition is the preparation of special foods at Christmas time.

The following are some popular local Christmas recipes:

CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS

CHRISTMAS TREE

The decorated pine tree is associated with Christmas, though its use can be traced back 4000 years to various ancient cultures. The evergreen pine bough was believed to symbolise “life over death” during the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year.

 CRECHE

The word 'creche' is of German origin and derived from the old French word cresche and means “crib'. The traditional Nativity creche consists of various depictions of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus in a manger. Attending figures may include shepherds, the stable animals, the three wise men, the star and angelic heralds.

STAR

The Star (of Bethlehem) is usually placed on the top of the Christmas tree and it references the “bright and morning star” (Rev. 22:16) who is Jesus Christ. It is said to have a two-fold symbolism:

It signifies the 'Star of Bethlehem' which guided the Three Wise Men from the East to the infant Jesus.

It attests to the greatness of God who created the numberless stars (Gen: 1:16).

 THE MAGI - The three wise men

As recorded in the gospel of Matthew and Luke, “three wise men” journeyed “ from the east” and found the baby Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea. They were guided by the appearance of a Star in the Heavens, which heralded the Birth of the one born “King of the Jews.” As recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, they worshiped the Christ child and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These three wise men were Casper from Tarnish, Balthazar from Saba and Melchoir from Arabia.

SANTA CLAUS

Also known as Father Christmas, Santa, Saint Nick and Kris Kringle. Commonly depicted as a jolly old man with a long white beard and wearing a red suit, Santa Claus is popular with children as a gift-giving figure. On Christmas Eve night he travels around the world, flying across the sky in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. In his sleigh is a sack of gifts (usually toys), which he distributes to children throughout the world. He enters households by sliding down the chimney with his sack of toys. He places the gifts under the christmas tree or in socks and stockings hung for that purpose. All this is done while the children sleep. During the year children write letters to him at his home in the North Pole, telling him what gifts they would like to receive for Christmas. The most important single source for the modern day version of Santa Claus comes from the Christmas poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the public and included what became the now famous picture of Santa Claus.

MISTLETOE

The mistletoe (Viscum album) is an evergreen parasitic plant found on trees. Its use dates back to pre-Christianity in Europe where the Celts used it to decorate their homes to celebrate the coming of winter. It was regarded as bestowing future hope and peace to any who passed under it. The leaves and berries however are toxic to humans. At Christmas time it is customary to hang mistletoe from the ceiling. Couples exchange kisses under the mistletoe as a sign of friendship and goodwill.

 HOLLY AND IVY

The Holly (Ilex aquilolium) is an attractive plant with scarlet berries. It is said to represent eternal life and was used by early Christians as a form of decoration. The holly's red berries signify joy and excitement. When used together, the holly and the ivy are regarded as symbols of friendship.

POINSETTIA

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrmia) or Flower of the Holy Night is accepted as a Christmas symbol in North and South America. It was discovered in Mexico by Dr. Joel R. Poinsette US Ambassador to Mexico. Its sale and use are popular around Christmas time as a decorative item for the home.

REFERENCES
Bibby, Arthur A., et al. “Traditional Christmas Food.” D’ Parang Table 2002: 18-19.

Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

“Christmas a Season of Symbols and Traditions.” Trinidad Express 22 Dec. 1996: Christmas Magazine 3.

“Christmas.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia Ready Reference. 2003.

Moodie-Kublalsingh, Sylvia. The Cocoa Panyols of Trinidad: An Oral Record. London: British Academic Press, 1994.

----------. Parang: Revival of an Old Hispanic Tradition in Trinidad. n.p., 1992.

Ottley, Carlton Roberts. Tobago Legends and West Indian Lore. [Georgetown, British Guiana: Daily Chronicles, 1950].

Pitts, Harry. “Half a Century Ago …” Shell Trinidad Ltd 5, No. 1 (1957): 3.

“Remembering a Countryside Christmas.” Trinidad Newsday 17 Dec. 2003: 7.

“The Christmas Tree: A Growing Symbol.” Trinidad Express 22 Dec. 1996: Christmas Magazine 4.

“The Crèche.” Trinidad Express 22 Dec. 1996: Christmas Magazine 8.

“The Music of Christmas.” Trinidad Express 22 Dec. 1996: Christmas Magazine 8.