By Lindsey Turnbull
The happiest time of year is almost upon us, and Cayman has been gearing up for the festive season with roundabouts becoming bedecked with decorations and lights, shops and offices sporting tinsel and trees and supermarket shelves heaving with Christmas candies and other goodies.
Christmas has been celebrated as a special time of year in the Cayman Islands for as long as can be remembered, particularly in the last century when it was a time when the seamen of the family would do their best to be home for the holidays.
In the book, Cayman Yesterdays: an album of childhood memories, compiled by Heather R. Mclaughlin, Captain John Hurlston told of the lengths he would go to, to get home for Christmas.
“Let’s say, from the early part of the year you were planning to go home for Christmas, you would work, work all during the year, and then if you wanted to go home, you got permission from the shipping company so that you could go back to work with the same company. I always did that. Otherwise they would just give your job to someone else. We didn’t get paid for the holidays,” he said.
While Cayman has obviously never enjoyed snow at Christmas, there had always been a tradition to create a snow-like effect. Preparations would begin for the season as early as November or even October, when children would begin by backing sand, a process that involved youngsters collecting sand then distributing it in their yards. After the sand had been evenly swept across the yard, pink conch shells would be used to edge the space and add to the beauty of the festive outdoors décor.
Nurse Annie Bush, born in South Sound in 1901, recalled her childhood Christmases: “The yard was all covered in white sand. You had to begin by backing the sand from November and put in in…each child had her own little basket for the sand. And in the evenings after school and sometimes late in the night when the moonlight came, you would go out on the beach and bring your little basket of sand and dump it in the yard. That was one of the things we had to do on Christmas Eve morning, spread that sand off nice and smooth, and woe betide me or you if we walked on that sand before Christmas,” she remembered.
In her book: Under Tin Roofs: Cayman in the 1920s, Aarona Booker Kohlman remembered the joy of decorating the yard in this way:
“The glistening white sand, the pink, lavender and yellow shells, and the richly variegated croton bushes around the house and yard blended into a truly festive sight for the holidays. These decorations cost no money, only time and labour that was turned into fun.”
Parades, marching and races
The Cayman catboat would be part of the Christmas celebrations, with catboat races taking place along Seven Mile Beach. Marches were also a popular way of having fun, whereby small groups of musicians playing anything from an accordion to a drum would march through the streets on Christmas night.
Christmas also marked a time when people would show off their new clothes. Aarona described the phenomenon:
“In Cayman it was the “Christmas Parade” rather than the Easter Parade, as everyone walked to church, the girls and women in new hats, new shoes and new dresses. Until adolescence, boys wore knee pants, so when a boy finally got his first pants, it was often at Christmas, and men sported new white suits, made by local seamstresses.”
Youngsters in today’s Cayman may be requesting I-phones, tablets or new Nike trainers from Father Christmas, but years ago the funds were just unavailable for lavish presents. An extract from the Cayman Islands National Archives Oral History interview with Ashley Godfrey, who was born in 1907, sheds some light on the type of Christmas presents youngsters could expect.
“Some Christmas they can give you, some Christmas they could hardly give you. On Christmas Eve night you’d put up a stocking somewhere in the house and next morning you go in and find a present there……the most you used to get was…candies and fire crackers and so on,” Ashley recalled.
Aarona Booker Kohlman wrote about how she embraced the Christmas season despite the limitation of resources:
“We had not brought any ornaments, and none were available at any store. A friend in the Isle of Pines had sent us a box of chocolate candies wrapped in bright red, blue, green or gold foil. I carefully smoothed out each piece of foil and covered cones from one of the two casuarina trees in George Town. Then I went to Merren’s store and bought inexpensive, metallic ribbon in several colours. I wanted to have some sort of gift for people who came to see us, so I cut the ribbon in six-inch lengths, and printed “Merry Christmas” in India ink on each one. These I hung on the tree, and presented each visitor with a bookmark…” she wrote.
She continued: “I have a clearer picture of that scrawny little tree in my mind than of any other tree in my life, not because it was in the least pretty, but because it represented giving in love.”