Christmas in the Caribbean doesn’t feel as festive
In Antigua, carols are sung by the sea, Santa arrives by speedboat and ants eat Advent calendars
Jennifer Ritchie: A Caribbean rum cake with ice cream may be the finale to Chrismast dinner before we head down to the beach to join other expat families.
It sits forlornly in the corner of our living room in this rented house with the million-dollar view over the historic dockyard and the perfect palm tree-lined Caribbean beach. It is small compared to the height of the ceiling and needs only one strand of tinsel, a couple of baubles and one string of lights to be completely decorated.
We didn’t know how long we would be living on the island so we didn’t splash out on the vast expense of an imported real pine tree for Christmas this year, much to the children’s dismay. Instead we played some festive tunes and made spiced cookies and spent a few minutes (literally) assembling and decorating the tree. I think fondly of our storage unit in Europe which contains our precious tree ornaments, collected from the places we have lived and travelled during the past 12 years of being an expatriate family.
Christmas away from home in Ireland is not new to me, yet every year I pine (pun intended, sorry) for the magic of the memories of my childhood Christmas. It was the creaking of the floorboards that always gave Santa away as he crept towards our bedrooms on Christmas Eve. We couldn’t sleep, even after staying up late for Carols by Candlelight at our local church, but we never peeped.
Waking up to the crinkle of wrapping paper and the weight of the stocking on the end of the bed was always such a magical feeling. Once the presents were torn open, we swung back the shutters to see if it had snowed in the night. More often than not, we couldn’t tell the difference between a heavy frost and a light dusting of snow. We could write our names in the condensation inside the windows not yet double-glazed.
Mum would start to cook the lunch and we would go for a hike to the nearby Hill of Tara. Our ragged breath hung in the cold air and the crunching of our feet made prints on the frozen ground as we laughed and joked and looked at the splendid views. The hike home whetted our appetites for the turkey feast. We dressed in our new Christmas clothes (an annual treat from Santa) and ate chocolates from the selection box as Mum prepared each vegetable dish with love and laid the table gloriously with the best crystal and china. Nana and Grampy were there too, sipping sherry by the fire.
My childhood Christmases in Ireland were the stuff of fairy tales. Now I am grown with my own family, I want my children to cherish their fond memories of the magic of Christmas too.
We moved to the island of Antigua in the Caribbean last year. Despite the idyllic views of white coral sand beach and a garden with hummingbirds and butterflies all basking in the perfect warmth, Christmas in the sun somehow doesn’t feel as festive, despite our best efforts. Even the Advent calendars have to be stored in the fridge or the chocolate will cause an infestation of ants.
However, we have been at Carols by the Sea – a beautiful children’s choir from the International School singing in the open air to the sounds of the turquoise Caribbean Sea lapping nearby. Santa arrived by speedboat last week, courtesy of the local Search and Rescue station, and handed out gifts to the children.
At “home” we are attempting to make our first gingerbread house, although I believe the humidity will make the biscuit walls soggy by morning. We may have to make it and eat it all in one day – there should be no complaints!
We will be making our own Christmas crackers too, using the jokes from last year’s Beano annual. I’m not sure how to get the letters to Santa though, as the postal service is decidedly dubious here and there is definitely no call for a fireplace in any home. We have year-round temperatures between 28 degrees and 32 degrees with the winter being a much more bearable breezy climate than the stifling summer humidity.
Church involves a steel band playing Antiguan Christmas carols with lines such as:
White sands, Christmas breeze, sweet red sorrel and poinsettia tree,
Me heart’s so tankful what can me do?
Me gonna put more love in de world.
The smiling Antiguans will spend hours here. Christmas lunch will be a blend of home and exotic. There will be roast pork with fried plantain and breadfruit, mango and pineapple chutney, roast potatoes and some greens. Perhaps a Caribbean rum cake with ice cream will be the perfect finale before we head down to the beach to join similarly-displaced families. As an expat, your friends become your family as you rely heavily on them to keep spirits high.
Perhaps it’s time to move back home to Ireland, to make a real “home” for our children so that they can own their Irish passports with the pride of a culture that they can call their own. The theory is sometimes easier than the practical however, and as with most expats, we are abroad for work.
In the meantime, we know all the words to the Antiguan national anthem, the heroes and politics of this tiny nation, the sporting culture and the heavy reliance on tourism, the modern-day sugar cane.
I dream of waking up at my Mum and Dad’s on Christmas morning in Co Meath and hiking up to the Hill of Tara, breathing in that crisp, fresh air and looking out over the green as far as my eyes can see. Then coming home to the smell of the turkey cooking in the Aga and the scent of the Christmas tree that has been cut from the field.
So this year we will light a candle in the window for friends and family far away, I will fill the house with the scent of cinnamon and ginger as we play charades with the children. Then as we prepare for the nightly serenade of crickets and tree frogs on Christmas Eve, we just hope that Santa knows where to find us this year.