Christmas in Barbados

What’s your image of a White Christmas? Is it a blanket of crisp white snow outside and a roaring fire inside? How about a beach covered in soft white sand and emerald blue sea?!

Now that the days are getting cold and dark, it won’t take long before many of us think of escaping the cold for some glorious winter sun. December is an excellent time to visit Barbados, as the weather is a bit cooler than in summer and it’s much less humid.

Yet in spite of these obvious benefits, many British people I’ve spoken to over the years find it strange to be in a hot country for Christmas – somehow it’s not the same without woolly hats, mulled wine and mistletoe! If you are used to snow at Christmas, it can be even more of a culture shock (and the white sand doesn’t quite have the same effect!).

The good news is that we have our own traditions and practises and they are easy to get involved with. So let me give you a little taste of what you can expect if you choose to spend the festive season in our beautiful island paradise.

Many of our traditions will be familiar to Britons, a consequence of our 300 years of shared history: we sing many of the same carols, go church on Christmas Eve and Santa Claus visits every boy and girl, despite the obvious lack of chimneys to shimmy down.

Although the climate doesn’t change that much in Barbados in the “winter” months the temperature can go as low as 24C, creating the perfect conditions for the Snow on the Mountain plant (Euphorbia marginata) to bloom in a cascade of white leaves and flowers.

Another plant that hides its beauty for most of the year is the Senna Alata, known to the locals as Christmas Candles because of the bright yellow flowers that burst out in December and grow in long, pod-like clusters.

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Christmas Candle

As in Britain, the Poinsettia is a popular Christmas tradition because the leaves turn a rich red just in time for the season. They can be found growing wild, but you will mainly see them being used as natural decoration in houses, businesses and restaurants around the island.

Christmas activities start with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Even if you are not a regular churchgoer this is a wonderful experience, made all the more special if you are able to attend service at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Bridgetown, one of the biggest and oldest churches on the island. Don’t worry if your hotel isn’t near Bridgetown; each parish has its own Parish Church, many of which were originally built in the 17th or 18th centuries.

The next morning it’s off to Queen’s Park, located in the centre of Bridgetown, where thousands of Bajans of all ages and backgrounds gather for a morning of food, fun and festivities. The tradition of Christmas morning in the Park, with music by the Royal Barbados Police Band, has been going for over a century and is still massively popular.

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Christmas morning in Queen’s Park

Yet it’s more than just a celebration: it’s a chance to promenade in your best outfit and the Park will be awash with men and women trying to outdo each other in their finest dresses, suits, hats and canes. These outfits come in all colours, from flawless whites and bright reds to rich blues and deep purples and even the youngest children take part. In spite of the obvious risk of feeling underdressed, this is an event not to be missed.

Queens Park
Photo by Amanda Lynch-Foster

Apart from church and Queen’s Park, Bajans mainly spend Christmas Day indoors with family, exchanging gifts and enjoying Christmas Lunch. Turkey is quite popular in Barbados, but the centrepiece of the occasion is a splendid baked ham, as big as you can afford!

I remember my mother spending hours preparing the ham: boiling it, scoring it, painstakingly adorning it with fragrant cloves, then applying a glaze of local brown sugar before baking. Baked pork is also a must: we Bajans like it so much one local calypsonian even wrote a song about it! Now, I know what you’re thinking: ham and pork come from the same animal. That’s right, and it’s a very popular animal in Barbados!

Stuffing and potatoes will accompany the ham and pork, as well something called Jug Jug. This dish harks back to our Scottish heritage and consists of pigeon peas, guinea corn, pork and beef, cooked together and minced into a puree. Like Haggis, Jug Jug was probably born out of necessity in the days when most people were too poor to afford expensive cuts of meat and refrigeration was rare.

The drink that is most associated with Christmas in Barbados is sorrel. This deep red beverage, is made from dried sorrel flowers that are purple in colour, unlike the green variety found in Europe. Sorrel drink is an acquired taste and as a youngster I couldn’t stand the flavour. So best to enjoy it with lots of ice and a dash of rum, or add a generous glug to your glass of champagne!

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Another great tradition is Punch a Crème. This West Indian version of eggnog, also called “egg flip” in years gone by, consists of egg, milk and plenty of rum! Serve over ice with a dash of nutmeg and bitters.

Boxing Day is also for visiting family and friends, but many people go to the races at the Garrison Savannah in Bridgetown. This is an excellent family day out and don’t worry if can’t get tickets for the grandstand, as there are grassy areas all round the track and plenty of food stalls local cuisine.

If you are able to stay in town for New Year’s Eve (we call it Old Year’s Night) be ready for a party! In fact, the Old Year’s Night party is so popular that even the nightclubs organise separate events at other venues, just to cater for the demand from locals and visitors alike. When I was young the dress code was smart – it was the only time of the year that I would wear a tuxedo – but these days the parties are more informal, with some even moving to the beach.

If you don’t want to commit to one party for the whole night, book dinner in your favourite restaurant and then bar hop. If you are staying on the West coast, head over to Holetown, where there is a wide variety of restaurants and bars. On the South Coast, St Lawrence Gap is the place to be. But make sure that you are outside at midnight for the fireworks. The display may not be as spectacular as the one in London, but you’ll still be able to feel your nose afterwards!

After the party winds down, drive to the east coast to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. The first golden rays of the New Year, caressing the dew-laden hills of the rugged east coast, are the perfect metaphor for hopes, ambitions and resolutions for the year ahead.

I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year!