Get In The Spirit With Virgin Islands Holiday Traditional Folk Tunes, Foods and Events
Celebrate the Season with Miracle on Main Street and the Lighted Boat Parade
30th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting
Crown Bay Holiday Fest
If you want to experience Christmas Day at its island best, then head to Emancipation Garden at dawn. There, in the heart of Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas, as the first rays of sun break over the horizon, dozens of voices blend in a sea of beautiful melodies at the outdoor concert known as the Challenge of the Carols. Yes, you'll get goose bumps. Yes, your heart will sing. Yes, the holiday spirit comes alive in a way you may never have experienced but will always remember.
"In the old days, choirs formed, either from local churches or groups of friends. They would start caroling right after midnight on Christmas Eve, maybe before, and go from house to house singing until dawn," explains Myron Jackson, director of the state historical office at the V.I. Government's Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Dr. Lois Hassell-Habtes, former director of the Caribbean Chorale, remembers carolers on her family's doorstep. "The singers would be accompanied by a scratch band. There might be a little banjo, guitar, washboards, dried gourds and bongos or some type of drum that could be carried. Virgin Islanders love their music. The songs would be a combination of hymns and folk tunes passed down through the generations." Refreshments were just as much a part of VI traditions as music. "When the carolers came to your house, you always served guavaberry rum along with a slice of sweet bread and ham," says Dorothy Elskoe, founder of the Committee to Revive Our Culture.
The cue for the sweet treats would be the caroler's refrain: "Good mornin', good mornin', ah come fo' mi Guavaberry."
The late, famous Virgin Islands composer, Bill La Motta, wrote this tune, known as the Guavaberry Song. According to the book, Virgin Islands Folk Songs, this song remains the most celebrated and cherished of the traditional holiday tunes because of the cultural importance attached to guavaberry liqueur. Hear it once, and the lilting melody and easily memorized words will play over and over in your mind.
A little bigger than a blueberry, but perfectly round, guavaberries have grown scarcer to find - and more coveted - in recent years. Unlike other berries, this first cousin of the clove and eucalyptus grows wild on trees and is most commonly found in the cool, lush hilly areas of St. Thomas' west side and the Bordeaux Mountain area of St. John. The individual fruit tends to ripen at different rates so islanders will gather small quantities at a time and then freeze the fruit until it's ready for baking and beverage making.
The recipe for making guavaberry rum is often a family secret passed down through generations. Ingredients include a mix of strong rum, sugar, flavorings like essences, citrus peel and spices, and of course, mashed guavaberries. This mixture is allowed to steep for several weeks until the flavors blend. The best guavaberry rums are those made from a small "seed" portion of this potent liqueur, carefully saved from the previous year. Some rum recipes are literally decades old. Island cooks also process guavaberries into jams, breads, cakes and especially tarts, at Christmastime.
Food is the focus of another popular Christmastime ditty, which has this opening refrain: "Mama bake the Johnny cake, Christmas comin.'"
Also written and arranged by LaMotta, the origins of this song center on the mouth-watering anticipation of holiday baking. According to Virgin Islands Folk Songs, "Children eagerly looked forward to the preparation of homemade delicacies such as sweet breads and specially made Johnny cakes. Santa Claus himself took second place to these. Christmas without these tasty delights was unheard of. The mother usually prepared them in her own kitchen. The Christmas Johnny cakes were no ordinary ones. They had a special flavor and were delicious."
Johnny cakes take their name from 'journey cakes,' as they are an unleavened bread made to last a long time without souring or spoiling. Today's versions do contain a little leavening, such as baking powder, but remain true to the non-yeast risen category of baked goods. flour, cornmeal or a combination of these two grains form the Johnny cake dough. Other ingredients include baking powder, salt, sugar, milk or water and oil. This dough is rolled into disks and deep-fat fried.
Dark, round and rich, sweet breads are typically made in Bundt-pans and decorated on top with dried candied fruits that have been soaked in guavaberry rum for flavoring. They differ from fruit cakes. Fruit cakes have baking powder for leavening and more fruit in the batter, while sweet bread is made from a yeast dough with comparatively less fruit. Use our authentic recipe below to try this tasty bread.
So, you might not find Virgin Islanders singing about a white Christmas or Jack Frost nipping at their toes, but you will find a very real holiday spirit both in island tunes and treats.
(top photo) Quelbe dancers at Emancipation Garden.
(inset photo) Locally made holiday guavaberry liquor.
(Adapted from Native Recipes; University of the Virgin Islands, Cooperative Extension Service.)
2 packages (2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 pounds (8 cups) flour
1 cup shortening
1/2 cup margarine
1-1/2 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons almond essence
2 cups mixed dried fruits, diced
4 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and cardamom
3/4 cup evaporated milk mixed with 3/4 cup water
10 whole pitted prunes
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Dissolve yeast in water; stir in sugar. Mix in enough flour to make a stiff batter. Beat batter well, then cover and let rise until double in bulk. Cream shortening, margarine and brown sugar. Add almond essence. Stir in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the yeast mixture. Add mixed dried fruits and orange peel. Sift together the remaining flour, salt and spices. Add the milk and flour alternately with the egg mixture. Beat well. Batter will be very stiff. Pour batter into two greased and floured 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pans. Let rise until doubled in bulk. Place a few prune slices on the top. Make a simple syrup by stirring together 1/4 cup each of sugar and water in a saucepan until sugar is dissolved and mixture comes to a boil; stir in 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Brush the top of the breads with the cinnamon-flavored syrup. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Makes 2 breads.
The holiday season is almost upon us, and what's Christmas without a miracle or two? St. Thomas ushers in the season island-style, with the annual Miracle on Main Street, Friday December 12, 2014. This downtown event, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, is a wondrous night of holiday cheer, music and shopping.
Miracle on Main Street has become an island tradition of festivity. Originally there were four downtown events per year. "It was started by a group of Chamber of Commerce members, primarily bar and restaurant owners, that wanted to increase night activity downtown," explains Joe Aubain, Director of the Chamber of Commerce.
Coinciding with the holiday season, Miracle on Main Street was the most successful of the events and has been for the past 22 years. Hard working committee members from the Chamber of Commerce organize this much-anticipated yearly party, which stretches from Emancipation Park to International Plaza, from Main Street to the Waterfront.
The entire downtown area decks the halls with festive lights and holiday decorations. Downtown shops, normally closed at 5:00, stay open until 9:00 to allow local shoppers to finish (or begin) their Christmas shopping. Main Street is blocked from traffic to allow for a free-flowing walking mall atmosphere. Many retailers offer special event discounts or sales that you won't find in the morning.
Every downtown bar and restaurant is filled with friends old and new making merry. As you stroll along the waterfront or Main Street you can stop and enjoy one of many bands resonating throughout the downtown area. There will be professional bands plus a variety of local youth and school bands. You've never heard Christmas music until you've heard it performed by a steel pan orchestra!
There are mocko jumbies strolling the streets, adding a dash of carnival color to the holiday season. Carolers can also be heard roaming the streets, and if you're lucky, you will encounter Santa Claus himself.
By far the most popular portion of Miracle on Main Street is the Lighted Boat Parade. From 6:30 pm the harbor glows with a stunning spectacle of boats on display with a lively holiday spirit.
Boats are judged on the originality and creativity of their decorations and lighting. There are several judging categories: holiday lighting, amount of lighting, creative use of lighting and originality. There is also a prize for the boat that traveled the farthest. It will really get you into the Christmas spirit and is magical to see.
Don't miss Miracle on Main Street, the holiday event of the season. Whether you've been naughty or nice, you'll have yourself a merry little Christmas time!
Enjoy an arts and crafts festival in the streets of St. Thomas' capitol, kicked off by a parade of festively decorated boats along the Charlotte Amalie Waterfront and followed by music, shopping and dining. Most of the stores on Main Street stay open late on this special night. For information and to confirm date, call (340) 776-0100
Wednesday, December 10
11 am - 10 pm
Havensight Mall, St. Thomas
The West Indian Company Ltd. (WICO) in conjunction with the Havensight Mall Merchants' Association will host the 30th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting. The festivities include the arrival of jolly old Santa and the opening of WICO's first ever Kiddie Christmas Village. The village will feature bouncies, child-friendly treats and a special reading of "A Never Snowy Christmas," a new book by local author Zenzi Hodge and of course gifts for the kids. A multitude of youth groups will entertain including, Flambo Combo, EBO Steel Owls, the Gladys Abraham Choir, IEKHS Jazz Ensemble, BCB Steel Band and more. Cool Session Brass will headline the evening's festivities along with Mocko Jumbies, local dance groups, carolers, local foods as well as arts and crafts vendors. All stores will be open until 9 p.m. For time and information, call (340) 774-1780
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 2
11AM - 12am (midnight)
Crown Bay Center, St. Thomas
Enjoy holiday festivities with a Christmas tree lighting, gifts from Santa, cultural arts & crafts for sale, steel orchestras and cultural dancers. There will be local food and drinks as well as holiday shopping at Crown Bay Center stores. For the kids, face painting, balloon artistry and a bounce house. Local entertainment from Cool Session Brass, Stanley & The Ten Sleepless Nights and Milo & The Kings and much more! For information, download a Crown Bay Holiday Fest flyer or call: (340) 774-2132.