Growing up in Trinidad in the nineteen fifties and sixties, Christmas was very special and highly anticipated.
During the post-war years in T&T, just about everyone in our neighborhoods was poor – I still remember food rationing from that time.
However, somehow our parents managed to make the holidays enjoyable and memorable. I remember in those days how much work my parents did to create a festive atmosphere over the holidays, even from my earliest childhood when we lived on Broadway in San Fernando.
Back then, heavy old-fashioned wooden furniture was quite popular in the Caribbean. Actually, the furniture was of good quality tropical hardwood and we had a living room set called a ” Morris suite” that we annually stripped, varnished and polished so that the furniture shone on Christmas morning.
My mother would sew new curtains, drapes, etc, and wooden floors would be scrubbed and stained so that the home was sparkling on Christmas day. She would also cook an assortment of cakes, sweetbreads, a cassava pone and the traditional smoked shoulder ham.
My very first memory of the Christmas ham was the year my father cooked one in a “pitch oil tin” on a fire in our yard when we lived on Broadway. (The “pitch oil tin “was a large can in which vegetable oil was imported and sold to retailers, and which was commonly used to store kerosene, locally known as “pitch oil”).
And of course, there would be favorite drinks like ginger beer, sorrel, and “puncha-creama” (ponche de crème, a traditional Christmas drink).
This was also the time of year when we had such delicacies as apples, grapes, nuts candies, etc., that were not available during the rest of the year in those days, at least not to us poor folk.
Remember we’re talking post World War II, folks, in the early 1950s.
The best part of Christmas to a child however is receiving gifts, and as poor as we were my parents didn’t disappoint.
Young children are not very practical beings.
Growing up in the tropics, I somehow bought into the entire Santa Clause ( or Father Christmas as we also called him ) story – the sleigh, the reindeer, the descent down the chimney, everything.
It didn’t dawn on me that being in the tropics, we had no snow or chimneys.
Like I said, little kids are not very practical.
But every year, Santa showed up and left gifts, and I usually got one or two items.
In those days, guns and automotive toys were the most popular for boys, while girls usually received feminine toys like dolls, tea sets, doll clothing etc, and “Father Christmas ” would leave our toys in our beds, not under the Christmas tree, so you’d roll over in the morning and a toy or toys would be in your bed.
It was a beautiful fantasy, until I faked sleep one Christmas eve, and caught my mother red-handed placing the toys in my bed!
I was so disappointed.
As we grew older, another of the traditions we enjoyed was “bustin’ bamboo”. During the days before Christmas, boys and young men would go into the woods, seeking suitable bamboo plants. A suitable plant would be full-grown, maybe five inches or so in diameter, and would be cut in lengths of about six feet. The bamboo would be prepared by hollowing it out from one end to the last joint on the other end, making a hollow tube, sealed at one end.
A hole, maybe about two inches in diameter was cut on top of the bamboo at the sealed end. The bamboo would then be mounted at a slight upwards angle with the hole at the lower end.
At the required time, kerosene was poured into the hole, and the lower end of the bamboo was heated, causing gasses to build up inside the bamboo. A lighted wand, usually wrapped with cloth was applied to the hole and the gasses in the bamboo exploded with a loud bang.
In those days, nighttime was pretty quiet, even in San Fernando, and sound traveled. In the distance, you could hear the sound of bamboo bursting from all over, like distant artillery.
While living in the country – New Grant, I went into the woods with the boys to cut bamboo.
Just another of my Trini experiences!
As we grew into our late teens, another tradition we enjoyed was what is today known as “parang”.
“Parang” is a local adaptation of Spanish-influenced music and culture at Christmas, and though the music wasn’t as prevalent as it is today especially with the advent of “parang soca”, the culture of merrymaking certainly was!
Around Christmas Day, our friends and neighbors would open their homes to us, and we’d get together in a group and visit these houses, eating and drinking as much as possible.
In some instances, even people we didn’t know invited us into their homes to partake in the merriment.
Especially with friends, our intention was to try to drink all the alcohol in the house.
(Trinidad had no age limit on alcohol consumption, which made this quite feasible.)
We called it “beating the stocks” and of course, you’d be subject to ridicule if you ran out!
All in all my friends, Christmas experiences growing up in Trinidad, in spite of everything else, were joyous and memorable.
In the post-war years while in England and before returning to Trinidad, the Lord Kitchener had a hit that was extremely popular in Trinidad at Christmas called “Drink a Rum”.Some of you may wish to take his advice on Christmas morning 😊.
May you all have a Very Merry Christmas, and a Joyful and Prosperous New Year!