I couldn’t help but be amused when I discovered this Christmas card that my Uncle Sydney used to send to his customers in Jamaica. It depicts snow – in Jamaica!!
Olga’s Diary (Continued)
Christmas Eve: Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me went to midnight mass at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Mammie never forces us to go to church and we can choose whether we want to. I always want to go, I like the feeling of peace when I’m in Church. The Cathedral bells always start ringing half an hour before midnight and as they died away the Holy Trinity Choir sang “Adeste Fideles”.
Father Butler preached the sermon and talked about the true meaning and spirit of Christmas and that it was a season of love and we should love one another and live happily and peacefully together. Father Butler knows my family well and I’m sure he wrote that sermon just for the Browney family. It certainly felt like it.
Christmas is a special time in Jamaica and we celebrate it in a big way. I love it, there is always so much happening and it’s one of the few times, apart from family crisis, a wedding or a funeral, when my family is together.
Christmas Day: Today is such a beautiful day, warm with a little breeze and Mammie is sitting in her favourite rocking chair on the back veranda, pretending she’s dozing, but I know she is watching to make sure Cassie and me lay the dining table properly for Christmas lunch.
We nearly always eat in the garden and Cassie and I are laying the huge mahogany table that’s been moved from the dining room onto the lawn and has been in the family as long as I can remember. Mammie had it specially made years ago and told the craftsman it had to be big enough to hold at least twenty people because she was going to have lots of children.
Cassie and I have done a good job with the table, even if I say so myself. At each end there is a large bowl of fruit overflowing with mangoes, oranges, figs, papaw, bananas, star apples, dates, pineapple, naseberry and tamarind. Down the centre we’ve put sprays of green maiden hair fern with white Christmas blossoms and lots of deep crimson roses. Each place setting has been laid up with a crystal wine glass and Mammie’s best silver cutlery, a Xmas cracker and a crisp white folded linen serviette in the shape of a water lily and placed in the middle of each setting. As an extra touch I’ve put a few tiny silver dishes of sweets, raisins and nuts on the table.
We have a real feast on Christmas Day, lots of different things to choose from. Rice and peas, cod fish and ackee, which grows in pods on a large tree, as well as the usual Christmas lunch of roast turkey, roasted plantain, sweet potatoes, calalue, cassada and yams. For pudding we’ll be having boiled Jamaica plum pudding with wine sauce as well and mince pies. Oh, I do love my food. Mammie says my eyes are bigger than my belly. I have a big scar on my upper arm where Dolly threw hot porridge at me one morning at breakfast.
I remember when I was little the family were sitting down to breakfast one morning, and we normally had porridge, and there was a sideboard where the porridge was laid out in dishes. I usually examined them all to see which was the biggest one. Dolly was standing beside me and I picked up the biggest one and she picked up hers and she threw it at me and said
“Here you take this too” and the porridge hit me on my right upper arm.
I’ve still got the burn mark all these years later. Mammie was furious with Dolly and she got smacked and Mammie took me to the bathroom and put bicarbonate of soda on it. It stung like anything. I cried a little bit because it hurt and then Mammie took me back down to breakfast.
After that we got ready for school and Mammie gave us a coconut cake. She made them every day for us. I can see Dolly, Ruby and myself, three little tots, going off to school, crying and hugging each other all the way. We made friends quickly and never kept malice. We were always together and did everything together, went to school together, played together, when we were very little we even slept in the same bed together.
Mammie is lovely, you know, we only have to say we have a headache and she’ll cuddle you.
Next to the chairs which have been stacked ready to be placed around the Christmas table is a big wicker basket which will soon be full of Christmas presents.
We have a custom at Christmas where we put everyone’s name in a hat and then you pick a name from the hat and have to buy a present for that person, costing no more than 1/-. It takes a lot of imagination sometimes to find the right present for the right person.
John Canoe: In the distance I can hear the music from the John Canoe celebrations which we’ll all go and join up with after lunch. John Canoe parades date back to slavery when Christmas was the only extended holiday the slaves had and it was a very special holiday for them.
Some people say John Canoe was a great African chief and loved so much by his people that in his honour a festival is held every year. Men wear “John Canoe faces”, which are masks worn by the performers.
One performer will wear a sort of house on his head, some wear a cow’s head, one or two of them wear the head of a horse, some of the men dress in women’s clothes and all are dancing in the streets accompanied by drums, tambourines, banjos, flutes or homemade musical instruments and there is lots of noise and dancing in the streets.
The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside. On his head is a cardboard cylinder which rests on a flat square piece of cardboard and his entire costume is black. He pokes people with his pitchfork and frightens, not only children, but grown ups as well, me included sometimes.
Another performer plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady who makes her belly move in time to the music. She is very funny and another character,
Pitchy-Patchy, has the most colourful costume of all, with layered strips of brightly coloured cloth. He is very energetic doing handstands and cartwheels all the time. In the evening most of us will go to Winchester Park which will be just one mass of people, young and old, rich and poor, all determined to have a good time.
At the entrance to the park last year was a thirty foot Christmas tree brilliantly lit and flooded with coloured lights from a gigantic searchlight and there were different booths, some designed to look like English cottages, and others had comic cartoons painted on them. In each booth there are usually games of chance and lots of ways of winning prizes.
There is always a special exhibition in the flower booth where the floral creations of school children are on display and when the Browney children were small, it was our custom to display our floral designs there. It’s one of my favourite booths and Maurice has told me that his floral design is on display this year. Dear Maurice, I can’t wait to see it.
But the booth I’ll head for first is the one with the fortune teller. I’m off to England soon, so I must find out what’s in store for me.
Telegram from Rebecca Browney, Kingston, Jamaica to
Martha Ross, Paddington, England
Olga sailing on S.S Jamaica Progress arriving London 1st April 1939. Please meet her. Becky.
On my way: On a crystal clear morning, the S.S Jamaica Progress steams slowly out of Kingston Harbour into the blue waters of the Caribbean, past small fishing boats, with the fringe of the coconut palms that front the Blue Mountains, gradually disappearing from view.
She passes Port Royal and what remains of the buccaneer city that an earthquake sank beneath the ocean hundreds of years ago. Overhead, in a cloudless blue sky, three long-tailed humming birds, so vivid in colour, sweep across the sky in unison and the sight of them takes my breath away.
An omen, perhaps, a sign of good luck, Olga?
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