Christmas Traditions Then and Now

December is a busy month of family traditions. Many of you are likely to be planning Christmas celebrations and parties as it is traditionally a month of festivities. For me, the season is usually a busy and happy one. Christmas has always been my favorite season. My traditions are a mixture of Guyanese and Haitian stylings. So I guess that they are unique to my household. The most important aspect of Christmas for me is the fact that it means that my children will be home for the holidays. Without us being together as a family even for a few days, there is no Christmas.

As a child growing up, the excitement of the holidays, parties and the joy of December 25 were most memorable. I remember that Georgetown became a little more exciting. Stores like Booker’s, Fogarty’s and Bettancourts department stores were all decked out with new arrivals in the Household departments, chocolates, fruit that were not native to our part of the world like apples or pears and toys. Santa Claus would be present in the stores and parents and kids lined up to take pictures with him and receive a small gift. Christmas meant that my mom had ordered the book annuals like Mandy, Dandy, Beano and other British characters popular at the time from England. She had stashed them away somewhere for our presents, but I always hunted them down, read them in secret and then slipped them back into their secret hiding place weeks before Christmas.

Christmas school plays and concerts, carol singing and other social activities were planned. In addition, there would be lots of parties culminating with the Big “Old Years night parties”; the grandest fêtes of the season. Everyone got dressed up in their finest and went out with good friends for a night of dinner and dancing to live music and to welcome in the new year together in style.

My house in Greenfield park was filled with activity, especially with 6 kids. There was lots of wonderful Christmas preparation going on in my Mom’s kitchen. It was customary to prepare traditional Guyanese foods synonymous with the season. Garlic pork, a Portuguese style marinated pork was one of these. The cubed meat is marinated with loads of garlic, thyme and hot peppers in a vinegary brine to be cooked on Christmas morning. Several glass jars would line the kitchen counter and were traditionally made three days before Christmas. On the morning of the 25th December, the strong unmistakable smell of garlic and fragrant thyme would fill the house, while the garlic pork was being prepared. The heightened smell was pungent, but oh so tasty on the palate. The slightly crisp exterior with the softer inner pieces were so tasty. They were eaten with slices of fresh plait bread or lightly fried sliced bread to absorb all of the deliciousness.

Pepperpot, the National dish of Guyana was the proverbial mainstay of the Christmas season. Made with cassareep, an Amerindian sauce made from fermented grated cassava juice boiled with cloves, cinnamon, salt, sugar and hot peppers until it becomes a molasses consistency. The best quality coming from the Pomeroon area. Cassareep acts as a natural preservative and antiseptic; therefore there is no need to refrigerate. As such, once prepared the pepperpot would have a permanent spot on the stove, as it just needed to be reheated everyday. Incontestably, pepperpot gets better with age as the flavors meld together and become richer. The warm comforting scent of the cinnamon, cloves and orange peel simmering in a mahogany colored broth with pieces of tender beef and pork was always so enticing. For me, pepperpot is synonymous with home and the holidays.

Garlic Pork marinating ( photo credit Dawn Goveia)

My mom and grandmother made black cakes for the Christmas season. This is a very rich fruitcake which is reserved for special occasions such as weddings, christenings, special birthday celebrations and Christmas. The name “Black Cake” may lead one to think that it is perhaps a very deep chocolate cake, but far from it. The color is derived from the macerated fruit such as raisins, currants, glacé cherries which are continuously “soaking ” in mason jars in wine and rum. The original fruit base can be topped up with additional fruit and alcohol ensuring that there is always a jar ready for use. A large portion of the mahogany colored macerated fruit and liquid is added to a butter cake batter. In addition, a dark caramelized sugar syrup, candied citrus peels and nuts are folded. The cake is baked and upon completion is doused with rum and brandy and left to imbibe and mellow further. This sinfully rich, dense fruitcake is then lovingly clothed in a layer of delicious marzipan. This coating is dual purpose as it is not only delicious, but it assures that the moisture is retained. It is finally topped with a layer of white fondant or a Royal icing. It is the quintessential cake of celebrations and is highly prized. As it is extremely rich and boozy, it is customarily served in very small slices. I was lucky to have been born into a family of great and renown Black cake makers.

Guyanese Black Cake

Sorrel drink made with Jamaican hibiscus flower is a lovely non-alcoholic drink. Fresh sorrel is available during December and is synonymous with Christmas.The scarlet colored leaves are stripped and steeped in boiling water with clove and cinnamon bark. It is then cooled, sweetened and served over ice. Mauby a slightly bitter drink made from mauby bark is also a Guyanese favorite. It is prepared by boiling the bark with cinnamon, cloves and dried orange peel before sweetening. Ponche de creme, a traditional Trinidad drink is also a popular beverage at Christmas time. It is made with condensed milk, egg yolks, lime peel, rum and nutmeg.Caribbean sorrel or hibiscus sabdariffa flower

In Haiti like Guyana, Christmas means family and celebrations. Many Haitian diaspora come back home for the holidays. In the month of December, the traffic gets heavier as there are more people in the country and in the streets. The week of Christmas is so busy that it is better to plan all activities well in advance. People get their homes ready for the holidays with Christmas lights and they decorate sapins or Christmas trees. Tropical Christmas trees are also popular. These are large dried branches whose leaves are removed and painted white. They are then decorated with Christmas ornaments. Fanale or cardboard cutout structures are meticulously made by crafty Haitian artists. These miniatures of traditional gingerbread houses or 3 dimensional shapes and have an empty interior in which tea lights are placed. The amazingly beautiful structures are used to decorate homes. They are synonymous with Christmas in Haiti.

Roasted Turkey and Ham are very popular Christmas foods. In addition, there are often more traditional foods such as much the ever popular griot or fried pork pieces and lambi or conch cooked creole style. Christmas buffets also often include vegetable gratins and savory tarts or feuilletés or roulades filled with chicken, beef or seafood. Christmas Day lunch buffet in Haiti

Special Christmas desserts are Croquenbouche and Bûche de Noël. The first is a spectacular array of petit Choux à la crème which are meticulously placed in the form of a tower. They are held together with caramel spun sugar in a wonderful display. The Christmas log is made of Genoise cake which is filled with a vanilla, chocolate or praline filling. The cake is rolled and covered with buttercream and decorated like a fallen log, with festive decor. The Pâtisseries in Haiti are masterpieces filled with all types of beautiful confections especially for Noel to tempt the palates and tease the waistline. Desserts such as fruit or almond vacherins, Napoleon’s, fruits crystallisé, fruit tarts, chocolate delights and creamy extravaganzas line the display.The sweet confections are a legacy of the French influence in Haiti.

Dessert and cheese platter

The New year is welcomed in and all Haitians start the day with a steaming bowl of the customary soupe joumou or pumpkin soup. January 1 is also Haitian Independence Day and is a commemoration of the incredible feat that was achieved in 1804 by a fierce and intent slave population. As pumpkin soup was forbidden food to the slaves and was reserved only for the Europeans, it became a symbol of the newly free population, and they have ever since made this the national dish of the new republic. This soup is hearty and delicious and is made with a meat stock, puréed pumpkin, potatoes, cabbage, turnips and a bit of pasta.

Traditionally eaten on January 1 in celebration of Haitian Independence: soupe joumou/ pumpkin soup.

One of my favorite pastries that is only available on the 12th day after Christmas is the Galette des Rois. This is the celebration of the arrival of the 3 Kings who had followed the star to the birth of the child in Bethlehem. They came to pay homage to the baby Jesus.This is a pâte feuillete pastry comes with a cardboard crown which is filled with an almond frangipane filling. A fêve or token is hidden in the filling. Whoever gets the slice with the fêve is the king and wears the crown.

Galette des Rois

In Haiti, rum or clairin which is a white rum is used and greatly appreciated. At Christmas, Cremas is a drink which is particularly popular and offered. It is creamy and coconut flavored, and many have their own particular homemade recipe which is made to offer friends and family during Christmas visits. Unlike the ponche de creme which I mentioned earlier, this libation has no egg yolks added. It is delicious and I am adding the recipe for you to try.

Recipe for Haitian Cremas

1 can of coconut milk

1 can of cream of coconut

2 cans sweetened condensed milk

1 can evaporated milk

1/2 tsp salt

2-3 tsp vanilla essence

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp grated nutmeg

2 tsp grated lime zest* optional

1 1/2 cups white rum or clairin

1/2 cup dried raisins * optional

Method

In a large bowl, add all of the milk products and combine together. Add the aromatics and salt. Finally add the rum and combine well. Pour into a large glass decanter for service or pour into clean glass bottles and refrigerate.

Note: if you would like this drink weaker or stronger, by all means add the appropriate quantities desired. Traditionally white rum is used, but you may use golden rum as well.

If you prefer to use fresh coconut milk instead of canned, use 2 dried coconuts. Grate and extract the milk to get 2 cups coconut milk instead of using the canned coconut milk and coconut cream.

*raisins may be added to soak in the Cremas. The raisins will plump up and are lovely surprise addition.

Serve cold over ice. You can grate a bit of fresh nutmeg over before serving.

Recipe for Guyanese Garlic Pork

2 1/2 -3 lbs fatty pork. (Pork shoulder cut into cubes or spareribs are good choice.)

3 heads of garlic

6 Wiri wiri peppers or 2 red scotch bonnet peppers

3 tbsp salt

3 cups white vinegar for marinade plus more for washing pork pieces

12 sprigs of fresh thyme or 3 tbsp chopped thyme leaves

2 fat leaf thyme leaves * optional

3 cups vinegar or enough to cover the meat in the marinade

Method

In a food processor, add the garlic, thyme and peppers. Mince to a fine texture. Set aside.

Cut pork into small cubes, about 1 1/4″. Leave some of the fat intact.

Wash the pork pieces with vinegar and water. Squeeze all of the water off and place in a large bowl.

Add the chopped garlic, thyme and pepper mix. Sprinkle over salt, mixing thoroughly.

Put seasoned pork pieces into a clean jar and pour vinegar over ensure that there is enough vinegar to cover the meat. Cover and leave to marinate in refrigerator for 3 days.

To cook

In a deep pot, place pork pieces and enough of the marinade vinegar to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well.

There are two methods to finishing the garlic pork. You may either cook in a frying pan to a golden brown or place on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil and cook in the oven until golden brown.

Add some of the cooked vinegar marinade and drizzle over the golden brown pork pieces just before serving.

Serve garlic pork with pickled onions and slices of fresh bread.pickled onions to be eaten with garlic pork.

To all of my wonderful readers and supporters of Guyanese Girl Haitian Soul, I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I hope you are inspired to cook and celebrate the season of love and sharing with your family and those you appreciate. I also hope that you keep some valued traditions alive in your family by honoring the memory of people and places which were once very dear to us. I wish you a December filled with happy moments. ❤️

One Comment Add yours

  1. Wonderful……. looking forward to your recipes.

    Like

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