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Christmas in Jamaica When I was 14

As soon as we said goodbye to November, Christmas breeze start a blowing in Woodlands, Jamaica. Our father had abandoned us and ,other migrated to the United States so we were being raised by our grandmother. Throughout the month of December, everybody's gotten into the Christmas spirit with broad smiles and started greeting each other with "Happy Christmas" and the predictable response was: "When it comes."

It's a time of cleaning up the yard and house so my brother and I would set out to cut the grass with our machetes. Unfortunately, with a sing of the cutlass, it took a glancing blow off a stone and cut me just below my left knee. I am bleeding profusely by Granny just washed the blood off and tied it with some chickweed and a piece of cloth and in less than 10 days it was all healed up again, but leaving a scar that I still have. We got back to painting the first three feet of the coconut trees in our yard and brought in red poinsettias for the table.

The raisins and currants that had been soaking in ovenproof rum for several months would now be stirred into the batter and baked in a delicious fruit cake. Since we didn't have an oven, Granny would put the batter in our Dutch pot and pile red hot coals on top as well as under the pot and we took turns blowing the coals to keep the fire going. When the cake came out, Granny would holler: "Hell on top, hell on the bottom, but halleluiah in the middle."

She also prepared roast beef and ham along with our red Christmas drink we call sorrel with plenty of ginger and white rum. Granny got down on her knees, not only to pray, but also to polish the floors. Everything had to look spick and span for company.

When company came, they took a stone and knocked on our gate and Granny would enthusiastically holler: "Push the gate and come on in, I am so glad to see you. Happy Christmas." My brother and I would sit on the wooden sofa in our living room listening and watching the adults laughing as they eat the roast beef, ham, cake and sorrel. The palaver would go on for hours, but children were never allowed to interrupt grownups unless we were asked a question or to perform.

Granny would ask us to show off by spelling a difficult word, recite a Bible verse or a poem. My favorite word to spell was Mississippi because I would spell it "M I crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I" and my favorite poem was "Spanish Needle" by Claude McKay.

Lovely dainty Spanish Needle,

With your yellow flower and white,

Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,

Do you think of me tonight?

Family would unpredictably drive up with presents and new clothes and enjoyed the Christmas vittles. I say unpredictable because we had no telephones or any means of communicating so we were always prepared for company. If the food was not enough, Granny would pepper so each person would eat less.

When the long-awaited day arrived, at the crack of dawn, we would be awakened by firecrackers. Like African drums, they would explode in one part of the village and an answer was required from another area and back an forth it would go for about an hour.

Both of us gave Granny a flask of brandy and she got us clothes. I gave Earl a bag of marbles and he gave me something I did not recognize in a paper bag. So, I said it looks like the bladder or a pig. He said it was but it was also a balloon. He showed me how he tied one end of the stomach and put a straw in the other end and blew it up. So we had many hours blowing up a pig's bladder, letting out the air and blowing it up again. Later, we would cut it up, fry it with garlic and onions, and eat it with hard dough bread - great Christmas present!

Granny would give us our Christmas money and we would then dress up in our new clothes for the community picnic. Our favorite event was the donkey races. My rough and tumble brother was convinced that he could win the race by as soon as he jumped on, the donkey kicked up his rear legs and threw him to the ground.

He wasn't breathing and I thought he was dead, but he just got the wind knocked out of him. Two men carried him in a makeshift bed and two ladies fanned him. After about an hour he emerged to declare: "I am good as new" to great applause.

He came back just in time for the maypole dance. So, he took a ribbon and in and out he went around the maypole with 20 other people. And when it was tied up, they unwound it again.

After a full day of dancing, talking and laughing, eating jerk pork, roast beef, curry goat, escovitched fish, Christmas cakes, grape nut ice cream and drinking sorrel and cane juice, everyone agreed that this was the best Christmas ever. Too bad it only comes once a year. - B. Waine-Kong, Ph.D., JD

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