Christmas Tradition, Part One: Barbados

Sunday, 6 December 2009


We had a huge casurina branch with paper decorations on it. These people clearly have either no soul or scads of dosh.

Christmas church attendance was compulsory - even the year we moved to Barbados. We lived on the wild and beautiful East Coast where everyone knew everyone else and nobody ever locked their doors. We were invited to the Christmas morning service, and walked along the winding road to the church in the hot sun, feeling most un-Christmassy and grumpy that our stockings were only half-opened. We were joined on the way by the rest of the village, dressed to the absolute nines. My father, in his khaki safari shirt and shorts, looked seriously underdressed; the men wore three-piece black suits and dazzling white shirts - they all wore ties and hats. But they were merely the backdrop to the magnificent starched ruffle of colour that was the women. Bajan women tend to be large and they love, love, love to laugh. They swept us three blondies up, weeping hysterically at the paucity of our plain cotton frocks and my poor brother's ironed shorts. Their kids were properly dressed; ice-cream coloured dresses held aloft by multi-layered petticoats, white socks and shoes that shone like stars. And the ladies' hats! Great cartwheels studded with garlands and gardens of silk flowers and all of them wearing gloves and carrying enormous shiny handbags.

Hitherto, we were relatively dour Church of England; our experience of church was Easter, Brownie Parade and Remembrance Sunday, with a polite Carol service at Christmas - subdued mutterings of unintelligible, very short prayers, a couple of familiar hymns and then out into the graveyard to shake hands limply with a morose vicar.

Blimey, we didn't know what had hit us, December 25th 1977. Ushered to front-row seats, as befitted newcomers and a teacher, we were bang in front of the choir. My mother fixed us with a gimlet eye and we looked sternly down as they began to sing. They sang gospel songs, urging us to get up and feel the Lord's spirit enter us. My Dad, eyeballs heavenwards, got up first, and clapped along awkwardly, my mother gamely joining him and for once, not even attempting the descant. The vicar shrieked and made lots of reference to Satan, bellowing at us to cast out our sins. We sat like stone mice as all around us, the congregation let the Lord, noisily and with a completely foreign display of emotion, right into their hearts. Every so often, and for no discernable reason, someone would yell 'AaaaaayMEN!' and everyone would join in with gusto.

At last, everyone got up again, still swaying their hips and clapping wildly. We kids shot to our feet and joined the throng for the door, minds on our half-ravaged stockings. As we emerged into the sun, we became aware that the choir was behind us, still belting out the hymns, and they had been joined by steel drums. It was a parade. We danced and sang all round the village for a good half-hour before my parents eventually, as we passed our door, thanked everyone and wished them a Happy Christmas before plucking us skipping children, who by now were punch-drunk on calypso and evangelism, out of the rainbow throng and into our house.

We stood in the gloom, shell-shocked for a minute. Then we threw open a shutter and sat watching this flock of musical birds wind their exhuberant way back up the hill through the breadfruit trees on the other side of the valley. Our stockings lay half-opened on our beds for quite a while. AaaayMEN.

13 comments:

  1. Good Lord E you made me feel that I had been there. You are so enjoyable to read. What a fascinating creature you are.

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  2. I really enjoy reading your colorful descriptions and your hilarious adventures. What marvelous humour! Please never stop writing. Thank you.

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  3. Oh this post just made me cry.

    I'm not Bajan, but from near enough (Trinidad), and I MISS the energy and vibrancy of Christmas at home so much. I'm overwhelmed now...

    My flood of homesickness is testament to your wonderful writing. Thank you so much.

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  4. Wonderful - totally love your description - felt I was in the church with you and laughed so much 'my mother for once not attempting the descant' - mine ALWAYS did too and we children squirmed with embarrassment...!

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  5. James - too kind, as ever, thank you.

    JADH - as long as there are stories still to tell..

    LPC - absolutely!

    agirl - don't cry, I shall feel terribly guilty. It's something else though, isn't it? So glad to meet someone else who's experienced the colour and singing. When were you last home?

    Anoninoz - don't! Mothers! Every year apart from that one - come Tuesday, she'll be at it again at the bots' Carol service!!

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  6. I read this through three times - enjoying it more with each reading. What fun - it brings back so many memories of my childhood in the 50s on Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu. Thank you.

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  7. I do love the juxtaposition of your posts (gosh that's a big word pre 9am!) - such a vivid, heartfelt post here compared to the really funny Christmas Fayre description last week.
    Mothers singing - mine was just the same. She has a trained, operatic voice but no volume control...

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  8. Just found your site a few weeks ago and so enjoy your writing. You're one of my favorites to check on every morning. I grew up in San Francisco and never really left the area - it's nice to live vicariously through your travel exploits! Thanks, CB

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  9. "....the vicar shrieked and made lots of reference to Satan, bellowing at us to cast out our sins...."

    Stop it you liar. You were in South Carolina with me and my clan.

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  10. Dorinda - again, so lovely to meet someone else who experienced the wonderful madness!

    Trish - you have my heartfelt sympathy. respect for the early big word.

    Carolyn - many thanks indeed and entirely my pleasure!

    ADG - It's highly possible. Though the enduring message I was left with was that God loves a sinner and I've been roadtesting the theory ever since.

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  11. There's a wonderful freedom in NOT being in the UK at Christmas especially if the Sun is shining. Ah those exotic chrismas tides...

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Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth