Open Forum: Holiday Traditions

Everyone has their own favorite holiday traditions. What makes your December merry? (Photo by Mat Probasco)

We stood on the red, corrugated metal roof with a fully-extended pool skimmer, leaning out with the pole over a dangerous — probably deadly — drop to string Christmas lights around a Norfolk Pine. The tree, high on the eastern hillside above Garden Street, could be seen from all around our neighborhood: Government Hill, Synagogue Hill, Bunker Hill, and into the downtown below.

Of course, once they were up there and further weeded into the limbs by wind and the mysterious laws of Christmas decoration entanglement, the lights would not be easy to take down. So year after year, a few weeks before the December holidays and St. Thomas Carnival in the spring, the towering pine would light up. It was our sparse, spindly, Caribbean-style homage to Rockefeller Center’s tree. It was a lot of fun even in its bedraggled later state.

I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday — Xmas, really. I know people who go to church on Christmas or ignore it altogether for religious reasons. But for me it’s always been about sharing and decorating, decorating and sharing. Some years after I left my perch above Garden Street I spoke with a friend on the opposite hillside. He’d had no idea it was me that lit up the tree each year. What fun!

A clutch of calabash came home with me from a trip to St. Croix one year and became makeshift ornaments around my little apartment. And there was usually a Santa hat floating around for those nights in the Christmas winds.

I never did decorate a Virgin Islands Christmas tree — the stalk of a century plant or other large agave — but I know people who have. There are two schools of thought, as I understand it. One is to adorn the spike while it’s still on the plant (a bit like the palm tree in the famous Corona beer commercial). The other is to remove the stalk and bring it indoors for decoration. It’s usually safe to cut the stems this time of year but it may be best to check with DPNR just to be sure. Some of these plants are endangered and need our help to continue on.

Once the V.I. Christmas tree is inside, the only limit is your imagination. I know someone who spray-painted their agave-stalk Xmas tree gold. Homemade decorations are just as good as store-bought. And, as usual, I advocate buying local, especially local made.

I also keep a strict holiday decoration calendar: Halloween never before October (as September should be reserved for the winding down of summer, not the ramping up of autumn); Thanksgiving goes up as Halloween comes down (no later than Nov. 2, thank you); Xmas only AFTER Thanksgiving and must must must be taken down on or before Three Kings Day.

That January Catholic holiday was a new one to me. I’d never heard of it before moving to the Caribbean. Put it up there with Easter Monday —  which I still don’t quite understand.

One of my most memorable Christmas celebrations was standing in Emancipation Garden with the Petersen family, scooping out an unimaginable amount of food to anyone hungry. Sounds easy, right? No way! These people were hungry. I mean, they could eat. I scoffed when told I wasn’t ready to handle the johnny cake station. I soon learned why. Led by Candia Petersen and her two children, Barbara and Bert, the assembly-line buffet was a work of finely tuned machinery.

They put me on box cheese and I could barely keep up. One hungry diner — on her second time through the line — leaned in to complain about the meager portion of cheese I’d delivered. It seemed like a lot to me! Anyway, belly all around full after that: Johnny cake, cheese, dumb bread, tarts, greens, soups, bush tea, I don’t even remember what else. What a spread. Some serious sharing going on there.

That same year I was coaxed into joining the Hapless, Hopeless Carolers. Sen. Celestino White had me swear a backward oath to Satan that I would not take my caroling duties seriously. I’m not kidding. I had no problem with this but someone else objected and the pledge was altered.

Then we paraded through Emancipation Garden in some sort of silly outfits, I recall, singing: “Glorious, glorious / One verse of song for the whole of us / When we sing we sing because we care / for we are the members of the Hopeless Carolers.”

My household’s favorite holiday music includes a smattering of the Caribbean Christmas tunes you’d expect, especially “How Will Santa Get Here” by King Obstinate. Heavier rotation is given to two of my all-time favorite albums: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and “A Christmas Together” by John Denver and the Muppets. If you don’t know these albums, give yourself a fantastic gift and have a listen. Never thought of the Muppets as sublime interpreters of song? Think again.

That same spirit of revery carries over to drink, or is caused by drink maybe. Hard to say. I’m a big fan of coquito, sometimes called Puerto Rican eggnog, but I’m a little careful about where it comes from. The base liquor is pitoro, which is traditionally moonshine distilled in the bush somewhere. Anytime you start adding dairy products to moonshine I’m going to be careful about my choices to imbibe. Or that’s what I say now.

My favorite, however, is a Virgin Islands tradition of the most delicious sort. Homemade Guavaberry liqueur is a work of art and history. Often passed down generation to generation, it can be a little sweet nip from a glass or something drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Oh yes. You can literally taste someone’s grandmother’s creation. A friend recently shared with me how to revive a bottle that has become more solid than liquid by adding a few spices and a bit of dark rum. She suggested Meyers rum but the beauty of Guavaberry is everyone’s tastes a little different.

So, what do you do that’s a little different? If you have a holiday decoration, tradition, or recipe you’d like to share, send it to me at that email address we used for this summer’s Local Tourist series: It’s a mailbox, by the way, I hadn’t checked since September so I’m sorry to have missed your emails. I appreciate the continued interest and the other tips you’ve sent. Thank you for sharing.

And Merry Christmas!