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).
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 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.