Caribbean islands once under British colonial authority have re-mixed an English tradition to become a cultural mainstay, generations later.
Shurla Tyler sits in the den of her husband’s extended family, watching lively Christmas festivities somewhere in a suburban New Jersey township.
About 30 kinfolk dabble in a spread of food, an assortment of gourmet desserts and top shelf liquor. The menu caters to a melange of guests who come with culinary palates spanning from the Northeast to California and across international waters.
It is a little bit before eight in the evening and everyone is deep in their merriment. Over a musical score mixing soca, Motown Christmas songs and Jersey house music, intermittent ripping noises from children tearing apart wrapping paper accents the snapping of boxes secured by Scotch tape.
Between laughter and long overdue catching up, Tyler laments, “Christmas is my favorite holiday, but American Christmas depresses me at this time of the day because it is almost over.”
After hearing the Temptations’ popular rendition of “Silent Night,” she exclaims, “American Christmas is just one day. It’s too short!”
Tyler is from Tobago, the sister island of Trinidad. Nicknamed “TnT” by locals, Trinidad and Tobago celebrate the English holiday, Boxing Day, a second-day celebration occuring on December 26.
In former British colonies like Trinidad & Tobago, some traditions remained even after the island-nation won its independence from England in 1962.
“In Trinidad and Tobago, you prepare for Christmas day. During that day, you’re sitting home and it’s about family. You’re eating and drinking and having a good time with each other. Presents are not as big [in Tobago] as it is [in the United States]. It’s about coming together, so Boxing Day is an extended day for Christmas. If I couldn’t come to your house on Christmas, we walk to your house and eat on Boxing Day.”
Tyler Continues, “You stop by to people’s homes and take a drink here and then eat something there. We’ll be drinking sorrel and ginger beer. Ginger beer is famous around the holidays. And rum of course. Rum is mandatory. In other words, lots of spirits,” Tyler laughs.
Tyler’s husband, Phillip, is African American, so the two trade off every few years between her home and his during the winter holidays. This Christmas was in New Jersey.
As a result, Tyler spends this Boxing Day lounging in bed, scrolling through Facebook to see posts from her beloved country.
“People are still cooking and celebrating. I was watching a video where guys are beating the steel pan and drinking. People are still paranging from yesterday.”
“Paranging” is a term referencing parang bands that are impromptu marauders who parade through the streets singing and dancing.
Explains Tyler, “Paranging is a bunch of guys with steel pans, bottles and spoons and knocking the bottles and dancing and singing a lot of Calypso songs. It’s totally fun and entertainment, but still in the Christmas vibe.”
Although Boxing Day heralds the remaining celebration of the birth of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, in Trinidad and Tobago the holiday also signifies a larger festival, and notably the most popular celebration on the island—carnival.
Leigh-Ann Martin, a Trinidadian chef now based in the New York area explains, “TnT carnival launches in September with big bands [releasing] new soca [songs, but] it’s really on Boxing Day that the carnival season unofficially begins with almost never ending amount of fëtes and other cultural activities throughout the country.”
According to Martin, the celebrations lead up to a carnival that falls before Lenten season, a time in which Christians fast, pray and often abstain from indulgences for a period before the Easter holiday marking the death then resurrection of Christ.
The “Mother country”
Whereas Trinidad & Tobago situate Boxing Day as a time to strengthen family and communal ties, across the pond in England, it is far from unifying community.
The current trend for Boxing Day still holds novelty parades and satirical public events, but the focus is consumerism. Bargains and post-Christmas sales percolate the commercial districts of the United Kingdom. In former colonies like Trinidad and Tobago, shops often remain shuttered. While in London, stores teem with buyers snagging clearance deals.
Although shopping has become a novel tradition for the common English resident, the rich still embark on activities marking privilege by participating in activities such as equestrian and hunting games.
Before Boxing Day spread as a buying bonanza, there are two main strands explaining its origins. A popular history points to the church in England.
Leading up to Christmas and on the day, a box was put in front of churches to collect charity from congregants. The collections were dolled out the day after the holiday.
One major donor to the annual charity drive were people in maritime. Captains kept a wooden box by the sails on their ships. In turn, sailors and passengers put money in the boxes as an offering for protection while traveling the seas. As a form of tithing, the ship’s captain would donate the accrued money from the ship’s voyages to the church during Christmas season.
Another story about Boxing Day beginnings point to royalty and the wealthy. These class of people usually granted their servants a break or day off on December 26. This was the poor and service class’ time to enjoy Christmas. As a bonus, the elite gifted their servants with boxes of presents which were usually prized foods and perhaps, some coins.
Junkanoo parade, when old traditions meet older traditions
In former British colonies like Bahamas, Boxing Day is made up of official and ad hoc public rituals that speak of the rich and complex cultural histories of the island.
The Junkanoo Boxing Day parade is a cultural clash of Afro-Caribbean people and European colonial influences. Historically, enslaved peoples were given three days off in the Bahamas. During the break, Blacks and Native peoples used the time to celebrate Christmas by showing the culture that they retained even in the process of enslavement.
Centering the parade are masquerades known as the Junkanoo where people dance and sing in elaborate costumes. From stilt walkers to musicians, the Junkanoo tradition evidences itself in West African sacred and secular public performances and rituals.
Krista Thompson, an art professor at Northwestern writes that the Junkanoo is an “African visual aesthetic,” while Angelique Nique frames that the performances are “all-encompassing ritual[s] of national culture” exhibiting the resistance of slavery.
Junkanoo has now become a known cultural experience for tourism, as the island continues to work to use it as an attraction for its economy much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, carnival in Trinidad and Tobago or Crop Over in Barbados.
Still today, Bahamas shuts down for Boxing Day, like Bermuda, another island that celebrates the English tradition as a public holiday. Instead of Junkanoo masquerade, Bermudians carry the tradition of Gombey performers who dance to drumming rhythms.
Slightly different in historical context, enslaved Blacks in Bermuda were only given two days off a year—Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. On these days of rest, those in bondage performed African-based rituals.
Today, Gombey dance troupes parade through the small island against the strong colonial-era architecture and culture. Bermuda still is a territory of England so Gombey, as vibrant and colorful as the performances are, in many ways resist British cultural imposition.
Boxing Day holds fond memories and signs of cultural disruption for those in the African diaspora. In whole, it is a time of year to reconnect to the meaning of identity, family and community.