"Christmas was about everyone coming together": Kereen Getten's Christmas in Jamaica

Published on: 02 December 2020 Author: Kereen Getten

As a little girl growing up in Jamaica, author Kereen Getten's Christmases were all about amazing food, big parties, and the feeling of your family - not just relatives, but the whole community - coming together. She shares her memories of her hometown at Christmas.

Life on First Hill

There are a few things that stayed with me long after I left my island, Jamaica. One was the freedom I had to roam and be a child, and the other was the community where I lived.

For the most part, First Hill, a small community above Lucea, was quiet. It was a hill above the town with layers of houses in their own yard surrounded by mango trees, guinep, pear and banana trees. Some like ours sat on the top of the hill, others like stepping stones around the edge.

Unlike the town below us, First Hill was like a sleepy fishing village. There was no constant noise except for the odd shouting as a passing neighbour engaged in conversation. Or the rev of a car trying to climb the treacherous hill.

Here in this small community, everyone knew you. So I was free to roam, to play games or to visit friends from quite a young age.

The boy and the balloon

For our small town where nothing ever happened, the Christmas holidays were a big deal, and because we were poor, preparations started early. Money was saved from early in the year, ingredients were bought and put to one side. It would be the one day we ate as though we were rich. The one time we would have more food than we could eat and my mother always made it last for weeks after.

Christmas Eve was almost as big a deal as Christmas day itself. Parties would be organised, decorations would be put up around the town. Music would fill the air. It was a time to celebrate, for the town to come together.

One Christmas Eve, we were in the town centre, and it was packed. Music was thundering into the air, and my mother had bought me a balloon from a guy selling them in the midst of the crowd. I was excited. I had never had a balloon before. We didn’t get presents often, and this balloon was everything to me. I remember it floating about the heads of everyone, despite people filling every inch of the square it flew free. It was deep red and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Then out of nowhere a boy walked by and stuck a needle into my balloon, and it popped.

I have never been more devastated, and when people ask me what I remember about Christmas in Jamaica, I tell them, Christmas Eve when a horrible boy popped my balloon.

Funny the things we hold on to.

The star of the show - the food!

But what I didn’t appreciate then, but I appreciate much more now, was how the community came together. It didn’t matter if you were religious or not, Christmas was about parents getting that well-earned time off work. It was about the adults gathering on our veranda chatting, and laughter and music filling the air. It was about school being out, playing games in our front yard late into the evening, and being allowed to stay up late.

There was a certain excitement that filled the air and everyone felt it.

But the biggest star of the show was the food. Jamaicans love their food and Christmas was the time to show off. Turkey or ham if you had money. Rice and peas, chicken and curry goat. Rum and raisin Christmas cake soaked months before. Drinks made from scratch. Waking up Christmas morning to ackee and saltfish and fried dumpling.

Christmas was about smelling delicious food but not being able to touch it. It was about lifting the pan when your mother wasn’t looking and stealing a piece of meat, then wiping away all the evidence.

It was about counting down the days when you could eat better than we had ever eaten that whole year.

We weren’t a wealthy family, by economy standards we were poor. There were no fancy meals every night and rice was our staple food. We rarely had new clothes and I only remembering travelling outside my town one or two times. The second time I left was to leave the country and what an experience that was!

We didn't 'do' Santa

I don’t remember getting any presents back then. We didn’t have a Christmas tree in the house, that was for the rich. If we wanted a tree we would have to go into town to see one in the square. We didn’t do Santa. I had never heard of Santa Claus until I came to England, so there were no milk and cookies left for the reindeer. There was just us and what money our families had squeezed together to buy enough ingredients to make a feast.

We made do with what we had and what we had was family. What we had was a community that helped each other out and you can’t buy that.

Christmas was about everyone coming together, walking into town as a group and joining the wider community to celebrate, burst balloon and all. It was about going to bed listening to your mother still cooking. It was about sharing a room with your cousins who wouldn’t stop talking, and waking up to Christmas reggae blasting through the house.

When I wrote When Life Gives You Mangoes, I wanted to write about that quiet hill that allowed me to go on adventures and play my favourite game, pick leaf.  I wanted to write about family, and how that can mean so much more than relatives – how family can be your wider community.

I wanted to show a side of my home town that people rarely hear or see. The small towns hidden in the hills away from prying eyes. The neighbours who show up on your veranda each night to relax and catch up. The days like Christmas when even though you were poor, everyone around you made you feel like the richest kid in the world.

Kereen's book, When Life Gives You Mangoes, is reviewed here. Follow Kereen on Twitter and Instagram.