December 9, 2008

“Ah give him bread and ham, together with a pastelle,

Ginger-beer, ponche-a-crème and sorrel

A glass of local wine went to his head;

He turned to me and said:

‘Oh yes, Trini Christmas is de best’…”

-Susan Maicoo, “Trini Christmas Is De Best”(c.1980s)

Santa leave the North Pole and come down to Trinidad

He say it too cold in the North Pole[…]

Soca Santa don’t want to ride no sleigh[…]

Santa walking around in sneakers and jersey and jeans

Looking to see where have party

And he tryin’ to storm, coz that is de norm

He come out to play, so he feting Trinidadian way…”

-Machel Montano, “Soca Santa”(1990)

Two weeks and two days to Christmas, and this “Trini gone foreign” is feeling it.

This year is the fourth year I will be missing a “Trini Christmas”.

Trini Christmas is distinct from Christmas all the world round, and I think it’s worth explaining what it’s all about.

Trinidad is best known for its Carnival, but whilst Carnival is widely promoted as engendering national unity, many Trinidadians consider it immoral and do not partake in such activities.

It is Christmas that unmistakably functions as a unifying ‘national’ event that merges the entire gamut of ‘Trinidadian’ heterogeneity.

Except for the more fundamentalist churches that regard Christmas as a secular abomination, most religions including Hinduism and Islam celebrate Christmas with a passion analogous to Christians.

Trini Christmas food and music

As Maicoo’s song suggests, ‘Trini’ Christmas is the creation of something magnificent from the traces of other things:

‘Ponche-de-crème’ is French, ‘pastelle’ is of Spanish origin, ginger-beer is of English origin, ham is a popular food worldwide, and ‘sorrel’ is distinctly Caribbean.

Similarly, Montano’s ‘Soca Santa’ alludes to an ‘alternative’ Christmas from the romanticized American ideal of a ‘white Christmas’, with mistletoe, holly, chestnuts, pine trees and roasting marshmallows on an indoor fireplace.

‘Soca Santa’ is fed up of the Americanised Christmas and comes to Trinidad, ditching his reindeer-sleigh and red-and-white suit, “looking to storm party[…] feting in the Trinidadian way”.

Trini Christmas emerges from slavery

As Mathura says, when Trinidad was a Spanish colony and Trinidadians were forced to be “mimic-men” the European planters were pining for a ‘white Christmas’ and began to ‘import’ Christmas, using cotton to decorate their trees and importing fruits.

By the time slavery was abolished, the freed slaves, indentured labourers and planters’ descendants had begun to follow suit with “imitation Christmases”.

Christmas trees were made out of big branches or dyed-green broomsticks with red cellophane covering the bristles, stuck in a tin of sand with cotton-wool around the tin; with “imitation holly, berries, strawberries, bells and baubles[…] hung on the homemade trees”.

Christmas became the time of year to put out their best crockery.

Even in modern years of considerable affluence, there is a Trinidadian deviation from ‘giving presents’ to ‘dressing’ the home: “it is the house[…] which is the main recipient of Christmas shopping” as Daniel Miller says in his book Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach: Dualism And Mass Consumption In Trinidad.

Though gifts are certainly exchanged between family and friends they are usually small tokens of affection because the family spends the entire year saving to invest in redecorating/refurnishing the house at Christmas.

Developing a unique ‘Trini Christmas’

However, as Mathura points out, with increasing affluence, much of Trinidad has “succumbed to the consumerism that only America [can] afford”, a “brand of cultural penetration [that] brings with it more dissatisfaction than goodwill”

Nevertheless, as Mathura explains, the traditions adapted from European settlers and integrated with Trinidadian reality have created a unique ‘Trini Christmas’:

“Without realising it, with traditions like gathering stones and pitch-oil to boil the salty ham, the Christmas curry, our blushing poinsettia, parang in the breezy Paramin hills, Soca Santa, pungent sorrel flowers, we re-created ourselves in our own mould, did the impossible by jogging an almost-erased memory in order to reclaim ourselves.

With our humble tools of paint and tinsel, song, varnish and linoleum, we breathed sharing, resilience, tolerance, exuberance, love, and faith into the cotton-wool snow that skirted our trees.”

Diasporic Trini Christmas

Even diasporic migrants acknowledge their ‘Trini’ obligations.

Though she feels like a “stranger in a strange land” and the extent of her Christmas gathering is her sister and their cats; Trinidadian journalist Jarrette still ‘put[s] away’ the house: “We have to send pictures back home and you can’t have the place looking rusty”.

On Christmas Day, for her the phone is “the real Santa Claus”: relatives calling from home with “the background filled with parang and glasses clinking, a bottle and spoon somewhere in the din” bring nostalgic bittersweet memories

Jarrette mentions the difficulties of celebrating ‘Trini’ Christmas abroad: apart from going through “one set of hasikara” and ending up “compromising” with many Jamaican replacements because she lives far from West Indian markets, the American host country is often not welcoming:

“Management informed us that [our ornaments] had to be taken down immediately[…] we were only allowed to stick things on our door that do not exceed the size of a photograph”.

Nevertheless, she notes with a smile that after neighbours called the police because they were playing their ‘voodoo-music’ [parang] too loudly, “the officers ended up leaving our apartment with ham sandwiches and sorrel”

Though Trinidad Carnival is labelled the epitome of ‘globalization in reverse’ due to its exporting of a ‘Carnival diaspora’ as Trinidadians carry their culture abroad to generate offspring of Carnival, Christmas also wields significant power as a source of ‘Trini’ identification.

…And I’ll be missing it — again — this year!!!



  1. You ain’t the only one…(sigh)

    As usual, great piece.

    – J

  2. woi woi, trini to d bone 😛

  3. […] London]… while I battened down the hatches to survive another Christmas far away from the warmth of my homeland… while, in truth and it fact, there was nothing much to […]

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