Antigua Christmas

November 28th 2023 in Celebration
Antigua Christmas

Antigua Christmas

Christmas is a special time throughout the Caribbean; Antigua and Barbuda's celebrations are no exception. The festive activities for the Christmas holidays in Antigua and Barbuda stem from the island's European and African heritage, steeped in traditions that are centuries old. These include carol trees, highlanders, stilt-walkers, 'John Bull', long ghosts, 'Jumpa-Ben' and lots of seasonal foods and drinks.

Yello has been exploring some of the island's time-honoured festivities. Christmas carol singers carried Carol trees as they went door-to-door offering greetings. The trees were made of wood with several arms and were adorned with Japanese-stle lanterns.

In Antigua, the 'John Bull' character is believed to have been created by enslaved Africans to satirize their British masters. Based on an African witch doctor, John Bull is a grotesque figure dressed in old clothes and dry banana leaves with animal horns.

The highland fling was introduced to the island by Scottish settlers and is staged at Christmas. Performers dress in traditional kilts, with masks made of wire and cowhide whips.

Long ghosts were larger-than-life masked figures on stilts who provoked terror in children by peeping into their bedroom windows looking for 'donations'.

Also popular at Christmas is the 'Dancing Jumble' or 'Jumpa-Ben', which is believed to have originated in West Africa, primarily in Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Benin. This character moves around on stilts to the music of kettle and bass drums, triangles and a 'boom pipe' made from lengths of iron pipe.

In 19th-century Antigua, quadrille parties were popular with people who had money. Homes were decorated with sprigs of fragrant allspice called 'pimento'. Bay leaf was also used for decoration, and cherry branches were made into trees. Drinks included fermented Christmas bush, ginger, and water molasses, and food was a choice between mutton, fowl, pork, turkey, duck, ham, cakes, and tarts. However, people experiencing poverty usually ate pork and fried dumplings.

History of the holiday

Although Christmas is rooted in the story of Jesus' birth, many holiday traditions have evolved from pre-Christian beliefs. Today, the holiday has a secular significance beyond Christianity.

The celebration of Christmas in late December is due to pre-existing celebrations that happened around that time, marking the Winter Solstice. One of the most notable celebrations was Yule, a winter pagan festival celebrated by Germanic people. Yule's exact date, from late December to early January, depends on the lunar cycle. In some Northern European countries, the word for Christmas has a closer linguistic tie to "Yule" than "Christmas," but it is still a term that may be used for Christmas in some English-speaking countries. Several Yule traditions are familiar to the modern celebration of Christmas, such as the Yule Log, the custom of burning a large wooden log on the fire at Christmas, and carol singing, which is surprisingly an ancient tradition.

Under the Julian calendar, the winter solstice was fixed on December 25, and this date was also the day of the famous Roman holiday of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn, the God of agriculture. This holiday was later superseded by Sol Invictus, a day that bundled up the celebration of several sun-based gods into one easy-to-manage festival.

As Christianity began to take hold across the Roman Empire and beyond, the date of when to celebrate the birth of Christ became an issue, with several different dates proposed. It wasn't until 350 AD when the then Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, fixed the official Christmas day on December 25. Unfortunately, Julius, I didn't show his work out on how he reached this date. Some scholars later suggested that it was calculated nine months after the Annunciation (March 25), when the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary and told her she would bear the son of God. Whatever the reasoning, it is clear that just as crucial pagan sites were chosen for new churches, the date was also determined to make Christmas a significant festival by placing it over the pre-existing pagan festivals.

Christmas Traditions


The tradition of kissing someone standing under a mistletoe sprig became popularized in Victorian England. However, this relatively modern tradition has much more ancient roots. Mistletoe bears fruit around the Winter Solstice and is believed to have mythical healing and fertility-increasing properties.

In Norse mythology, Balder, a brother of Thor, was killed by an arrow made from mistletoe. Frigga, Balder's mother, brought him back to life, and her tears changed the red berries on the mistletoe to white. She blessed the mistletoe and promised a kiss to anyone who passed beneath it.

Mistletoe was once a tree, and its wood was used to make the cross Jesus was crucified. After the Crucifixion, the plant withered and became the parasitic vine we know today. This shows how mistletoe has been integrated into the Christmas tradition from pagan ceremonies.

Carol Singing

It's worth noting that the tradition of singing songs dates back to pagan festivals before Christmas was celebrated. The term "carol" is derived from the Greek word "choraulein," which refers to an ancient circular dance performed to flute music. Since carols were already a well-established custom, early Christians integrated Christian songs into the tradition rather than ban the practice altogether. Most Christian carols were written in Latin, which by the Middle Ages was a language exclusively used by the church, thus reducing the popularity of the custom.

However, the popularity of carols was boosted when St. Francis of Assisi began his nativity plays in Italy in 1223, which included songs written in the local people's language. The tradition of modern carol singing thrived in England, where it was known as "Wassailing." It was a chance for peasants to receive much-needed charity from their feudal lords. This singing-for-money custom evolved into travelling musicians who would visit wealthy homes, singing songs in the hopes of obtaining food, money, or gifts in return.

The Puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, disapproved of the celebration of Christmas. When they came to power after the English Civil War in 1647, the public singing of Christmas carols was banned. Anyone caught singing them could be fined up to five shillings. However, when King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the public singing of Christmas carols was once again permitted.