Gingerbread men and nativity scenes, Christmas trees and eggnog, caroling, turkey dinner, and the words Behave, Santa’s watching: These things mean Christmas to most. But in the islands of the Caribbean, it goes more like this: pasteles and Magi, century plants and spiked sorrel, masquerades, Jumbie Table, and Be good or John Canoe gwanna getchu.
You’ll find in the Caribbean many of the same traditions that represent the universal Christmas sentiment: A spirit of sharing, an overindulgence in good food and spirits, a gravitation toward family and friends, and a return to religious and cultural roots.
But from there, the islands have taken Christmas and made it their own, with long-running festivals and family customs distilled from influences as diverse as African fertility rites and Scandinavian ghost tales. With their promise of deliverance from snow and chill, the islands’ definition of a White Christmas has more to do with sand beaches and a warm welcome to share in vibrant celebrations.
Over my 40 years of researching Caribbean travel, I have accepted hosted visits to the islands. All opinions expressed are my own.
1. Puerto Rico
The prize for the longest and most fervent Caribbean Christmas season goes to Puerto Rico. Islanders begin the day after Thanksgiving and don’t give out until February. The celebration climaxes with the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Epiphany, on January 6, and on San Sebastian Day, January 20.
In Puerto Rico, the three wise men deliver presents to children, as they once bore gifts for Christ. On the eve of Three Kings Day, youngsters place water and grass under their beds for the Magi’s weary horses. In return, the wise men leave toys. For more than 135 years, the town of Juana Díaz has celebrated a festival and parade where over 25,000 people gather for the occasion.
In old Puerto Rico, the family would begin in November preparing holiday dishes for weeks to come. Making pasteles (pork, raisin, and olive enchiladas wrapped in plantains) required efforts of the entire family. And no family dared be caught without pasteles. For shortly after Thanksgiving, asaltos (assailants) began arriving on doorsteps with demands for pasteles and liquid refreshments in exchange for their musical equivalent of “carols,” known as parrandas.
Today, most Puerto Ricans, especially those in the capital city of San Juan, buy their pasteles rather than make them en familia. But the asalto tradition withstands time’s assault on the old ways. Every weekend during the pre-Christmas season, a disguised band of friends — armed with cuatros (small guitars) and guiros (corrugated gourds) — descend upon neighbors with songs in their throats and growls in their stomachs. Families are forced to surrender all coquitos (coconut-rum eggnog) and goodies, then join the musical group on their merry way into the wee hours of the morning.
You can sum up the holidays in the Bahamas with one word: Junkanoo.
Haunting rhythms thump softly on goatskin drums. Whistles scream shrilly and color explodes in a combustion of feathers, sequins, and streamers. Nassau’s big event on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, leads the Junkanoo street parade tradition. But throughout the islands of the Bahamas, it translates as a cavalcade of costumed pageantry.
Through the years, the festival has evolved from a ragtag celebration of a slave’s day off, to a British-influenced mummers show, to an instrument of intimidation and revolt, to an underground tradition denounced as vulgar, and finally today’s carnival extravaganza. Its name comes from a folk character known as John Canoe, something of a boogeyman back in the early days.
Today, massive local bands with names like The Valley Boys, Prodigal Sons, and Saxons compete. They dress in bright fringes of crepe paper and sequins layered onto cloth, gigantic cardboard, or wooden headdresses and shoulder frames. The j’ouvert (opening) party begins before daybreak on Boxing Day and continues in a burst of self-perpetuating energy.
In Jamaica and other British-influenced islands, sorrel is always mentioned in the same breath as Christmas, and can usually be detected on the breath of islanders throughout the holiday season. Because its hibiscus plant ripens in-season to produce a Christmas-red liquid, sorrel is the typical drink of Caribbean yule-tiders. Served fermented or unfermented, it is rather bland until doctored with Caribbean spices and, of course, the proper spirit of island Christmas — rum.
Throughout the season, Jamaicans share their sorrel, chocolate tea, and other holiday goodies with visitors. They listen to reggae bands playing both traditional and folk songs at beach bonfires, hotels, and on the street. Decorations from snowmen made of sand to Christmas trees decked out in Jamaican colors add in some extra cheer.
On Christmas Day, visitors can experience a traditional Jamaican Christmas dinner of holiday staples including ham shoulder, gungo peas with rice, curried goat, and fruit cake soaked in rum for dessert.
Like the Bahamas, the celebration continues with a Junkanoo street parade on Boxing Day, but with more of an old-time vibe than a glitzy one. Through the streets of every town and village, islanders dress in extravagant costumes, highlighting longtime traditional characters such as Belly Woman, Horse Head, and Pitchy Patchy.
Pro Tip: Christmas Eve celebrations include the traditional Grand Market, where vendors set up shop in town squares across the island. All are invited to join the community in the bountiful shopping experience.
In proximity to Venezuela, Aruba shares some of the Latino traditions found in Puerto Rico, blended with American observances and purely-Aruban merrymaking. Special holiday foods, for instance, mirror Puerto Rico’s menu. Plantain-based ayacas are the Aruban version of pasteles. Ponche cream stands in for coquito, minus the coconut but with a special blend of spices. Arubans make their own recipes at home, but visitors can easily find ponche cream for sale throughout the island, which lights up with decorations from the streets of Oranjestad to the roads and resorts island-wide.
Some resorts design unique activities for holiday guests — from an elves meet-and-greet at the Ritz-Carlton Aruba and holiday cupcake and cookie decorating at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort, to Santa’s arrival by jet ski at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort and chocolate truffle and rum tastings at the Aruba Marriott Resort.
To welcome in the new year, the Marriott hosts a celebratory feast leading up to a fireworks display at midnight. Other resorts contribute to lighting up the New Year’s Eve sky with fireworks (or klapchi in the local Papiamento dialect) and families, too, add to the booming festivities.
Puerto Rico’s asalto Christmas tradition translates to pre-New Year’s dande groups in Aruba, where merry bands of five to six travel to the homes of loved ones on New Year’s Eve, wishing them success and happiness in the coming year through song. The bands consist of a vocalist and musicians playing instruments such as the traditional tambu drum.
Pro Tip: Visitors can join in on the fun at the annual Dande Festival, which takes place just before the new year.
5. Curacao And Bonaire
As part of the Dutch ABC islands with Aruba and Bonaire, Curacao shares many of the same traditions. Its rum-spiked ponche cream gets a pistachio infusion and December 5 is a red-letter day on the holiday calendar. That’s when Sinterklaas — the Dutch version of Old St. Nick dressed in a long white beard, red robe, and tall bishop’s miter — arrives in St. Anna Bay on a tugboat. He throws candy and goodies to kids lined up on shore.
Bonaire sticks to old traditions with caroling groups similar to Puerto Rico and the Fiesta di Bari, named after the traditional sheepskin drum that keeps the holiday beat. Both musical traditions perform throughout the season at local bars and special events.
New Year’s customs range from Curacao’s house-cleaning rituals, which include cleansing bad spirits and ensuring future good luck with incense smudging; to Bonaire’s Maskarada, a group of musicians and masked characters who perform through the streets in a 25-year tradition. Revelers begin at the home of the lieutenant governor, performing skits by miming and dancing a storyline, before moving on to their next performance.
6. St. Croix
U.S. Virgin Islands
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, islanders sip guavaberry rum beneath painted century trees. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, at St. Croix’s Christmas festival from December 11–January 7, Spanish guiros accompany American banjos and Caribbean steel drums to produce holiday music uniquely Crucian. Highlights include pageants, a carnival village, a food fair, a j’ouvert, and kids and adult parades. Quelbe (the official music of the USVI) lyrics sweeten tunes with island flavor: “Mama bake your johnny cake, Christmas a’comin’” and “Good mawnin’, good mawnin’, I come fo’ de guavaberry.”
Crucians relish another pan-Caribbean holiday sweet of English contribution known as Christmas cake. Cooks begin its preparation months in advance, chopping up fresh native fruit to soak in rum.
Pro Tip: Crucians also love their coquito holiday tipple. Americans can take home 5 liters of alcohol duty-free if 1 liter is produced in the USVI and you’re 21 years of age.
Not as renowned as some of the bigger islands, but equally steeped in tradition and flavor, is the Christmas celebration on the tiny isle of Montserrat. Here, where masquerades, steel drum bands, and street “jump-up” dancing prevail throughout December, the household Jumbie Table remains the true showcase of holiday heritage.
Jumbie means “ghost” in Caribbean dialect. Montserratians, although strongly Irish-influenced, share the Scandinavian belief that ancestral spirits return at Christmas to join in festivities. A Christmas Eve table is thereby set to share with them, including traditional specialties and the island’s unique white rum ginger wine.
Pro Tip: For visitors, mid-December marks the opening of Street Jam at Festival City. Through New Year’s Eve, days are packed with musical shows, calypso contests, and costume competitions for the titles of Miss Festival Queen and Calypso King.
Learn about more holiday traditions from around the world, including: