“In many traditions, the world was sung into being: Aboriginal Australians believe their ancestors did so. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, Om was the seed syllable that created the world.” ~ Jay Griffiths.
December has always been a special month for me, since it is my birth month. There is also that special time they call Christmas. But in more recent years it has become associated with sweet yet sad memories, since my father died in December 2010 and my mother’s funeral was in December 2015 (delayed somewhat to allow for me to be present at the service). For most of us, Christmas is a time for nostalgia, as we remember that special feeling of anticipation, that knowledge that the special day was coming.
In our household (both in the UK and later when we moved to Jamaica), decorating for Christmas was of course a big part of the buildup. My mother had ornaments that came from her penpals in Europe, so they were slightly different from our own. There were plenty of homemade decorations also: paper chains that had to be licked like envelopes after being looped into the prior one; or strips of crepe paper folded back and forth over each other and pressed down to make nice sharply creased chains to drape around the room. Of course, by the end of the Christmas season they would look droopy and sad.
Then there was the evening we would go out carol-singing, holding candles which dripped hot wax on you if you weren’t careful. Does anything bring that Christmas feeling more than a good round of Christmas Carols? Christmas Eve in Jamaica is a day for ‘Grand Market’, a day when mostly dry goods would go on sale, with last minute Christmas purchases bought for the family. If you were lucky, you got a new dress to wear to the dawn Christmas morning service. In the cool hills of central Jamaica, the Christmas breeze would make you shiver, and add to the anticipation of the Christmas goodies still to unwrap.
As parents we try to create that same special feeling of Christmas for our own kids, although I suspect that these ‘nowadays kids’ are too savvy to hold on to the belief in an omnipotent Santa Claus anymore. As immigrants we tried to recreate our own traditions for our kids, blending the old with some new ones of our own.
I was thinking that my own small role in this unfolding life of ours, is to help to connect different groups of people. I was once told that a researcher can be either a butterfly or a spider. The butterfly flits from subject to subject, while the spider connects them all. Which made me think of the Trickster Spider Anansi who was the star of the ‘Anansi stories’ told in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. He apparently travelled with the enslaved Africans from Ghana, having originally being the son of the God Nyame. One story says that his father changed him into a spider because of his mischievous ways. Most Anansi stories feature him successfully tricking the other creatures in the forest through his cunning and wit. His full name was Kwaku (born on Wednesday) Anansi – which we may recognize in the old Jamaican saying: ‘If you can’t catch Quaku, you catch his shirt’ (‘If you cyaa ketch Quaku, ketch im shut!’)
Thinking about Anansi made me use the Google to find a Christmas Anansi story, and I encountered Jamaica’s own the Honorable Louise Bennett Coverly – her Christmas Anansi story tells how sorrel (in the US known as Hibiscus) got its name. Apparently Anansi was not able to find anything to take to Grand Market to sell as everyone else had been to the fields before him and dug up or picked all the available produce. The only thing he could find was these bright red sticks with red flowers, so he grabbed a few stalks and went off to market with them. He tries to swap them for something more profitable, but since it had no name, he got no takers. I forget exactly how, but he ends up flinging the stalks into a pot of boiling water, and amazes all of those who were chasing him with the rich red wine-like juice it became. After adding sugar, some ginger and pimento berries, he had a tasty drink to sell. Anansi, surprised at his own invention, whispered at the concoction ‘how you so-real, so-real, so-real?’ and the crowd heard ‘Sorrel’.
Sorrel has been my annual connection with the Jamaican Christmases of my youth, and every Christmas that I have lived in South Florida. When traveling to the UK to visit my parents, I would go at Christmastime and carry a pack of dried sorrel with me. After purchasing fresh ginger and plenty of sugar, I would mix up a batch of sorrel so I could give my parents a taste of home. I would watch my mother’s face to make sure it was ‘just right’ for she could not fake approval if it wasn’t! I remember hearing the story of my father, one of his first Christmases in Jamaica, visiting church members and being given a slice of rich Jamaican Christmas cake, and a small glass of the delicious sorrel. Of course, he was unprepared for the other, more potent ingredient (a dash of white rum!), and claimed he had no idea how he drove home after imbibing!
This Christmas season, with its share of joy and sadness as we long for the way things were, and miss those who were once a part of it, I hope you have enough to share with those who don’t; may you feel the warmth of a loving family; and if you run out of things to talk about, look for an Anansi story to share – he will have you in stitches! Jack-mandorah, mi no choose none!
Wishing everyone a joyous Christmas and a Healthy and Happy New Year.