Not everybody dreams of a White Christmas… if you prefer sunscreen over scarves and gloves, then spending the Holidays in the Caribbean could be just what the doctor ordered. Many Caribbean islands’ celebrations have their roots in traditional Christian rituals, though each island has its own take on the festivities. Of course, no Caribbean celebration is worth its salt without plenty of food… and plenty of rum! If you’re headed for a tropical Christmas this year, read on; you might find yourself in the middle of a fun-filled island-wide celebration.
Festival of Lights, St. Lucia
The island of St Lucia is named after the patron saint of light, Saint Lucy, whose saint’s day is celebrated on December 13. On St. Lucia this marks the start of Holiday celebrations and is known as the Festival of Light and Renewal. In the days before the festival, houses are decorated with colorful homemade lanterns, and there’s even a lantern competition for the best creation. On December 13, locals take to the streets of the island’s capital Castries, for a nocturnal lantern parade. Revelers walk down to the bay and set their lanterns on the water, sending well wishes and prayers for the coming season. This is followed by a song and dance show and a fireworks display.
Where to stay in St. Lucia
Grand Market, Jamaica
With close ties to the United Kingdom, Christmas time in Jamaica has many elements you might recognize—from the carols playing at all hours on the radio to the Santas collecting money for charity in stores across the island. Children here are all-too-familiar with the naughty and nice list which keeps them in check throughout the year.
On Christmas Eve there’s a celebratory atmosphere across the island for “Grand Market”, which starts in the early evening. Stores stay open, families wear their best Holiday outfits and everyone mingles together, browsing the stalls and having a good time. Of course, it wouldn’t be Jamaica without amazing street food—you can expect to find jerk chicken, roasted peanut sellers and sweet treats like candy canes. There’s even a special Christmas cocktail—sorrel, made from the dried petals of the Sorrel flower (a type of Hibiscus), mixed with orange peel, spices, and rum.
In contrast to Grand Market day, on Christmas Day itself, the streets are empty and families celebrate together at home. Most shops stay closed for a couple of days so if you are heading to the island make sure you get all your provisions before the celebrations begin!
Where to stay in Jamaica
In the Bahamas, there is Junkanoo, a local festival where locals dress up in masks and parade through the streets on December 26—Boxing Day—and New Year’s Day. The origins of the festival are unclear, some believe it has its roots in Akan culture (modern-day Ghana), in celebration of a legendary African prince, John Canoe, some believe the word comes from the French gens inconnus as the revelers wear masks to hide their identity. Still others think that the festival has its origins in the days of slavery on the island when slaves were given three days off at Christmas and celebrated parties, singing and dancing.
Whatever the origin, you’re guaranteed a colorful, joyful experience as costumed dancers perform choreographed moves accompanied by drums, cowbells, and whistles. Dance troupes can number an incredible 1,000 people! Don’t plan on getting an early night if you want to watch the parade—it starts around 2 am and goes on til mid-morning. If you feel like joining in when the mood takes you, go ahead! Everyone is encouraged to join in. The biggest celebration takes place in the capital, Nassau, although there are also celebrations on Grand Bahama island the Exumas and the Abacos.
Where to stay in the Bahamas
Dia de los Reyes, Puerto Rico
If you’ve been to Puerto Rico before you’ll know that music and dance are central to the island’s culture, and Holiday Season is no exception. Seasonal celebrations begin here in early December, and carry on right through to January 6—Dia de los Reyes, one of the most important celebrations in the winter calendar here, which celebrates the day the Three Kings arrived to visit Jesus.
Leading up to Christmas Day, or Navidad as it’s known in Spanish, groups of friends called Parrandas go door-to-door to sing songs—a Caribbean take on the tradition of caroling, accompanied by guitar playing and maracas. The group will be invited in for refreshments and revelry before everyone moves on to find another house and the party begins anew, until sunrise. The drink of choice? Coquito, a cocktail similar to eggnog, prepared with rum, coconut milk, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves.
On January 5, the night before King’s Day, preparations begin in earnest, including some unusual traditions. Children can be seen outside cutting grass with pairs of scissors for the kings’ camels which they put into boxes and hide underneath the beds of their parents or grandparents, with their gift ‘wish list’ carefully placed on top; in the morning, the grass will have been replaced by candies and gifts. As in many other cultures, the Kings only come if children have been good all year. Later in the day families gather together to enjoy a festive feast and, naturally, sing songs.
Where to stay in Puerto Rico