By Mutryce A Williams
Navigating "Island" Parenting is a submission of quotes, tips and parenting advice that I have gathered over the years as a source of inspiration and as tools to deal with the daily challenges of parenting. This week’s issue: Kittitian/West Indian Christmas. The hope is that this submission would cause you to reflect on your parenting skills and also make the journey of parenting a bit easier or brighter.
Being a Gatekeeper of Traditions
The walls are freshly painted, new curtains are hung, the rooms are adorned with new furniture or the old ones polished to look like new, the house is decorated or “spiffied up,” made immaculately clean or should I say “spic and span.” It’s Christmas. It is that time of year when we put on our “Sunday Best,” and head off to church for worship on Christmas Sunday. We sing songs such as, “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel” and “Once in Royal David’s City.” We enjoy the poems, plays, and musical renditions by the children, and no Christmas program is complete without the song that goes “C is for the Christ Child.” At church the choir also delivers a special treat, as its Christmas. People would go caroling. The string bands are serenading.
We look forward to the Christmas Day feast of at least four different types of “relish” or meats. Pork, ham, turkey, chicken, stew goat, fish, you name it. There is food, food, food and more food. It is a day when we all forget about our worries, eat our bellies full, and enjoy the good company of family and friends. It’s Christmas. The refrigerator is stocked with drinks, mauby, and our signature sorrel drink. The tables are adorned with spirits and black cake, the welcome mat rolled out, ready to share with that neighbour, family or friend who happens to drop in bringing tidings of good cheer.
The children anxiously await the “sports” as we call them; the Masquerades, Mummies, Clowns, Cowboys and Indians, and the infamous Mansion Bull. The children look forward to following the throng through and through the village, totally bemused, enthralled even, watching performance after performance. It never gets old. It’s Christmas. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts, and cousins return from far off places to join in the merriment, to celebrate because it is Christmas. The barrels and boxes with food, clothes, and wares roll in from relatives overseas, as well as the Christmas cards and New Year’s Day cards.
The airwaves permeate with Christmas carols from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, but we prefer our very own brand of string band music, parang, steel pan, and calypso. We love Ruff and Reddy’s Christmas medleys, Crazy’s “Yvonne” is a classic, and so is “Lorraine” by the Explainer, and who can’t help but fall in love with King Obstinate’s “Ho, Ho, How will Santa get here!” There are countless songs that spell Christmas for us as West Indians. For the native Kittitian this time of year is also Carnival or “Sugar Mas” so there is triple the merriment, a celebration of the birth of Christ, family traditions, and revelry. The local calypsos blare, and there is plenty, plenty fanfare.
This all came back to me after a conversation with a friend who said that she was getting her children ready to take pictures with Santa. I smiled, and joked, “I bet you wouldn’t get them all spruced up to take their first picture with the Mansion Bull, Masquerades or Clowns.” She laughed. This and other experiences, such as the lady in line at the store asking my sons whether they had been good all year and were expecting a gift from Santa this year, not even giving thought to whether or not Santa was something that I wanted them exposed to, as understandably for most, Santa is to Christmas, as Christmas is to Santa set me thinking.
Another conversation that ensued with my friend set the wheels of thought turning as well. She aptly informed that these are modern times, and that her children although of West Indian descent were in fact Americans who would grow up experiencing Christmas the American way. These experiences caused me to not only recount the Christmas that I knew as a child, but also gave rise to the Christmas that I wanted my sons to grow up knowing, and I can tell you that it isn’t one where Santa Claus is at the forefront, and the reason for this is not only because of the commercialization aspect or that Christ was being taken out of Christmas but because Santa was not an integral part of the traditional Kittitian/West Indian Christmas experience.
Even though times are changing or things are growing more “modern” I really would not want the West Indian/Kittitian meaning of Christmas replaced or “watered down” by the “global” or what is being funneled universally as the “traditional Christmas.” At times I find that my generation is so ready to let go of the old and ready to embrace what is considered mainstream or new, because it is just the thing to do, and anything that even hints of tradition is viewed as “backwards” or “just not with the times” or as one friend described “appearing to never want to let go of the past.”
But do we as Kittitians/West Indians know the meaning behind our Christmas traditions? Do we know the reason why there was so much merriment, the sports such as the masquerades or Mansion Bull, the butchering of the pig and cattle, the sharing of black cake, sorrel, and whatever produce the neighbour had reaped, and had chosen to share with other villagers? It goes back to our history, when Christmas was the one day the slaves were allowed off to celebrate and be with their families. Does this have any significance to us today?
As I said, the conversation with my friend just set me thinking, of how we embrace Santa Claus wholeheartedly and pass this along with the legend of Frosty the Snowman unto our children yet our historical traditions we throw to the wind so that we can be considered mainstream or considered more modern. Don’t get me wrong everything old/traditional isn’t worth keeping but in the same regard everything new or foreign isn’t worth embracing either.
Let me note that I am not against Santa Claus or the magic of Christmas that he is supposed to represent. I am not against him being the focal point in other cultures, as it is their culture. There is a story there, an origin or a deep rooted connection. The Kittitian/West Indian Christmas was not one of sipping eggnog by the fireplace, jingle bells or dashing through the snow. It was not one where cookies and milk were left for Santa but more or less one where black cake and sorrel were exchanged.
I have heard most of the debates, “Every child needs to believe in Santa Claus… It is an essential part of every child’s upbringing,” and maybe they do because there are some children who do need something to believe in, however as Kittitians/West Indians, I ask, is this what we were raised to believe that Christmas is or was? Were our fondest memories of the gifts left under the tree by Santa Claus or rather those Kittitian/West Indian incomparable moments shared with family and friends that we look back on now with warmth? These are just questions that I am asking.
The decision of whether to bring Santa Claus into your home or your lives as a parent is a personal one. For me, personally, after giving all of this some thought I can say that I don’t want my sons’ minds to be so ossified with the concept of Santa Claus that it is all that they know of Christmas. I don’t want to have that internal debate as to when I ought to break to them that Santa isn’t real so in this regards I bless King Obstinate for his lovely rendition as it is a song that I play daily for them, and by now they have learned the words to.
I don’t want there to be this expectation that Santa Claus is the one who puts the gifts under the tree, because someone worked very hard for the money in order to procure those gifts, and although they are quite young and it’s very hard to shield them from knowing Santa, as this version of Christmas is so commercialized, and they are being raised in a culture different from mine, I realize that as a Kittitian/West Indian parent who holds steep to tradition that I would have to be the gatekeeper or preserver of Kittitians/West Indian version of Christmas for my sons, as it is an essential part of their heritage.
No one is saying that as “new age” parents we can’t adjust or create a Christmas that marries both our traditions with what may be considered “mainstream.” My question however is why let go of your traditions in lieu of wholeheartedly embracing someone else’s? As a Kittitian/West Indian who sees our traditions or culture dwindling under the more universal/global version of Christmas I ask that we all take a keen look again at what Christmas meant to us and what you would we would want it to mean to our children. Traditions give a sense of self, a sense of belonging, and also pride in one’s heritage. We descended from a resilient people. We ought to be proud of this and pass this on, keep the torch going, don’t let it blow out.
What if there was a Masquerade Claus or Mansion Bull Claus instead of Santa Claus?
In a debate about the concept of Santa Claus recently, I suggested to a friend that as Kittitians/West Indians that it would have been a nice addition had our ancestors incorporated the aspect of the leaving, giving or delivering of gifts by the Masquerades, Clowns, Mummies or Cowboys and Indians at the end of the skits/performances so that when children wake up on Christmas morning the gifts would have come from a Masquerade Claus or Mansion Bull Claus, something culturally relatable, if you catch my drift; as opposed to a jolly, rotund man, in a red and white suit, flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeers who was suppose to come down the (non-existent) chimney when the children were sound asleep, expecting milk and cookies after he had delivered the gifts.
My friend looked at me, and laughed so hard that she almost burst her seams. Her reply was, “Great imagination but that’s the most preposterous thing that I have ever heard.” I responded, “And the scenario that I have just given you of a jolly, rotund man flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeers, having to deliver gifts to every child around the world in one night isn’t preposterous?”
Christmas is Time for Giving
Christmas is the most anticipated time of year for many especially for children, as this is the time of year when they would be receiving a multitude of gifts, or that one coveted gift that they had been pining away for all year. It is also a time, when parents, in an effort to show their children just how loved they are, pull out all of the stops, and would stop at nothing to ensure that on Christmas Day, that there are smiles plastered all over their children’s faces.
Some of us might have even gone into “Jingle All the Way” mode. I am referring to the 1996 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad, “The plot focuses on two rival fathers, workaholic Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) and postal worker Myron Larabee (Sinbad), both desperately trying to retrieve a Turbo-Man action figure for their respective sons on a last minute shopping spree on Christmas Eve.” I also think that it is a time of year when parents secretly feel that they can redeem themselves by purchasing the most expensive or elaborate gifts, hoping that this may give them a free pass for being strict or maybe not the ideal parent all year.
Over the years we have listened to the ongoing debates of how we are losing the true meaning of Christmas to commercialization. The religious have argued that the Christ has been taken out of Christmas. Proponents of family values and traditions have posited that it is no longer a time of tradition or strengthening the family but rather the focus is on gift giving or receiving. Oftentimes love is measured or equated to the price that is attached to the gift given or received, and not the thought behind it.
All of this gift giving and receiving has caused me to wonder whether or not as parents we emphasize that this is not only a season of receiving gifts but one of giving, and I don’t mean only to family, friends or the person whose name is drawn for secret Santa but rather that it is a time for random acts of kindness. It is a time for giving your time. Many parents ask their children what they want for Christmas, I often wonder how many parents ask their children what they intend to offer or give for Christmas.
Quotes on the Spirit of Christmas and Giving
“Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.” Charlotte Carpenter
“Money is not the only commodity that is fun to give. We can give time, we can give our expertise, we can give our love or simply give a smile. What does that cost? The point is, none of us can ever run out of something worthwhile to give.” Steve Goodier
“Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it's Christmas.” Dale Evans Rogers
“By what you get, you make a living; what you give, however, makes a life” Arthur Ashe
“There is a very real relationship, both quantitatively and qualitatively, between what you contribute and what you get out of this world.” Oscar Hammerstein II
“It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” Mother Teresa
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” Charles Dickens
“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Kahlil Gibran
Mutryce A. Williams, a native of St Kitts and Nevis is the mother of 4-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Nicholas. She not only values the many facets of West Indian parenting but also thinks that there is vast room for improvement. A former educator and a child/youth advocate, Mutryce firmly believes that children should not only be seen but heard.. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org