The Caribbean hosts some of the most colourful Christmas celebrations. Francesca Murray is enchanted by Martinique’s Chante Noël, plus we look at some of the region’s other fantastic festive fetes…
It’s December in Martinique. For the first time in my adult life I’ve been invited to a Christmas party where I have no idea what to expect. My good friend Yannick assures me that there will be plenty of dancing, drinking and eating – not unlike Christmas parties I attend in California. My curiosity piques when I am instructed to pick up a book of Cantiques de Noël (Christmas Hymns) before the big day. They’re impossible to miss, and can be found at the register of any grocery store throughout the month of December. I’m a little confused as to why I would need my own personal copy, but I purchase the bright-green booklet anyway. As I skim through the pages I find nearly a hundred lyrics to songs in French in Creole that I don’t yet recognise.
Chante Noël, or Chanté Nwèl, is a unique tradition in which people come together and sing Christmas carols set to the rhythm of a live Creole band. Celebrated as one of the biggest festivities of the year, there are several Chante Noël parties held across Martinique from the beginning of December to Christmas Day. The concept is always the same: each guest pays an entry fee, which covers the cost of the band and a main course, and a potluck style contribution is required. French Caribbean yuletide favourites include sweet or savoury pâtés, yams, boudin créole and yule log for dessert. Those who have gardens bring freshly pressed juice, while rum connoisseurs bring shrubb – the mother of Christmas cocktails, carefully crafted from dried orange peel, sugarcane syrup and white rum.
Familiar and foreign
After weeks of anticipation the day of the party finally arrives, and I find myself completely swept off my feet by the familiar and the foreign. There is a Christmas ham on the table, marinated to perfection. Children are outside chasing each other around the banana trees, while adults chatter away on the patio. Drinks such as coconut rum and guava juice are served as seats by the dance floor begin to fill up. The band starts, and everyone jumps to their feet, bright green Cantiques in hand. As it turns out, the Chante Noël is not a spectator sport – everyone is expected to participate. I’m a little shy, but a push from Yannick puts me in the centre of it all.
Before I know it I’m chanting at the top of my lungs, the vibrations from the drums sending a ripple down my spine. My confidence soars as a familiar tune floats through the air. I do my best Mariah Carey impression and belt out ‘Douce Nuit’, the French equivalent of ‘Silent Night’, along with 30 other eager participants. Chante Noël is celebration on an intimate scale.
The event began in the afternoon but carries on well into the evening. In the same way I was pulled out to the dance floor, I am now one of the last to leave. Perhaps it’s the shrubb, but I am buzzing with energy. We help take everything down, and as we head out of the door we call out cheerful goodbyes that are as warm as the December air. “Joyeux Noël et à bientôt!” Merry Christmas and see you soon!
Traditional celebrations on an island near you
Festival of Lights St Lucia
The Christmas season traditionally begins here on 13 December: Saint Lucy’s Day. The night before, St Lucians celebrate the Festival of Light in her honour: Castries is strewn with lanterns, cultural performances are staged and the evening ends with a massive fireworks display.
Carriacou Parang Festival Grenada
It’s not just Trinidad – Grenada is rather partial to parang too. Held every year since 1977, this festival keeps alive the tradition of house-to-house carol-singing and serenading. Local villages vie in a series of competitions, and there are also musical demonstrations and cultural exhibitions to enjoy. Dates for 2017 are 15-17 December.
Morning Masses Puerto Rico
Puerto Ricans like to drag out Christmas from Thanksgiving well into the New Year. In the nine days before Nochebuena (24 December) you can experience the misas de aguinaldo, when locals attend 6am church services to sing Christmas songs. This culminates in the misa de gallo, a more sombre midnight mass held on Nochebuena itself.
Nine Mornings Festival St Vincent & the Grenadines
Running for over 100 years, this early-hours event is held 15-24 December. Starting at 4am daily there are concerts, caroling and illuminations, decorated bicycles, fetes and fireworks, sea baths and steel pan jump-ups.