'Twas the time around Christmas when all through Belize's towns
The spirit of family and traditions could be felt all around
Las Posadas, Deer Dance, Midnight Mass and prayers,
Grand Ball, Joncunu, and Charikanari were there;
In the Mestizo town of Benque Viejo del Carmen in the Cayo District, Christmas begins on December 16th with Las Posadas (the lodging). This nine-day Hispanic tradition whose roots can be traced to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1500s involves prayer, music, song, dance and food.
It begins when the santos (saints) are taken from Church to one of the pre-selected homes. These santos, which are represented by statues of Mary and Joseph, are marched through the streets accompanied by marimba music, torches or candles and firecracker displays.
The procession reaches its destination to find the door locked. Through songs and music, the people outside reenact Mary's and Joseph's request for lodging while on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem and are answered by the people inside. Once they are allowed to enter the home, the santos are placed in a visible location in the home and the novena (prayers) begins. After prayers a light refreshment is served before the participants depart, leaving the santos with the host family for the night. On each successive night the santos are taken to a new home.
On December 21 while Las Posadas is being celebrated in Cayo, an all-night vigil is being held in the Maya village of Santa Cruz, Toledo. In this vigil, which begins the 5-night celebration of the Maya Deer Dance, there are prayers, incense (copal burning) and food offerings during which masks and costumes are blessed.
On the following day the Maya Deer Dance begins. The dance itself is performed by 24 players, dressed in colorful costumes. Players include a jaguar (locally called a "tiger"), a joker, a man dressed as an older woman and another dressed as a maiden, a hunter, a pair of dogs, a few soldiers and about six sacred deer. As the act is played out, the jaguar kidnaps the maiden, the hunter pursues the jaguar and the dogs chase the deer while the joker pokes fun at everyone.
Although no one present could explain its full meaning, all agreed that the Deer Dance is an important ceremonial dance only performed on special occasions. This near-extinct tradition is being revived in Santa Cruz because community leaders have recognized the importance of cultural preservation. For this particular event, the inhabitants of Santa Cruz coordinated with the communities in Peten, Guatemala who made the costumes and loaned their marimba players for the performance.
While the Deer Dance enters its fourth night in Santa Cruz, families in Sarteneja, Corozal are coming together to prepare food. Corn is ground for tortillas and tamales and a pig is seasoned and marinated before being wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground like the Hawaiian Kalua pig except that we call it pibil. To top it all off, cakes and cookies are baked and a relleno (chicken stuffed with ground pork) is made. Later in the evening, villagers attend novena after which they share candy, drinks, cakes, cookies and wine before heading to Midnight Service. Upon returning home, families exchange gifts and enjoy a meal before retiring to bed.
Meanwhile, in the southern town of Dangriga, at 10 PM on Christmas eve, dancers make their entrance at Kennedy club. About fifty years ago in the Stann Creek and Belize districts 8 groups of dancers consisting of 8 to 10 pairs used to perform dances like the Fox Trot, Quadrille and Waltz. The nightly balls would begin on December 24 and continue through December 31st. The Grand Balls of yester year were part of the Christmas socializing activities for teens and twenty somethings.
Today the Grand Ball is celebrated on 2 nights in Dangriga: Christmas and New Year's Eve. The teen and twenty somethings have since been replaced by over-fifty dancers but this tradition which was borrowed from the British is still very much a part of the calendar of events in the town of Dangriga.
As Grand Ball is being performed in Dangriga, the last night of Las Posadas takes place in Benque Viejo Del Carmen. On this night the santos are returned to the Church where the Baile de los Pastores (Dance of the Shepherds) is performed before Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) begins. Around the country of Belize communities of varying denominations also celebrate Midnight Mass, some with liturgical dances.
The celebrations continue on Christmas Day with gift opening and a family meal. In Dangriga Christmas afternoon is reserved for Wanaragua (John Canoe or Joncunu) and Charikanari. Both these masquerade dances involve groups of performers who go from house to house entertaining the community with antics in the case of Charikanari and fancy footwork and shells in the case of Wanaragua.
Similar to the Jamaican Jonkonnu, the African American Johnkankus and the Bahamian Junkanoo, the Garifuna Joncunu has its roots in West Africa and only became a Christmas dance because historically this was the season in which families were together and had the opportunity to make fun of the European sovereigns. This can be seen in the pink wire mesh masks with painted faces bearing European features and the long-sleeved white shirt and pants reminiscent of British uniforms. In some areas skirts are substituted for pants and are meant to imitate Scottish kilts. Even though some components such as the drum accompaniment have remained consistent, as the Garifuna history and experience diversified so too did elements of the dance evolve, making it unique from its Caribbean counterparts.
Charikanari may have originated as a spinoff from the Joncunu Festival. Descriptions of 17th Century performers mention two forms of dressing: the beautiful, presumably like our present day Joncunu dancers and the grotesque described as wearing cowhead attire with real horns worn over a head wrap and a wire screen mask. Today's Charikanari "cow" and "hunter man" surrounded by a group of masked dancers offer hours of entertainment to the young spectators who amuse themselves by teasing the players.
On Boxing day, the tradition continues with the Asederahatian (the ones who serenade). These lively older entertainers parade the streets of Dangriga with drums going from house to house to sing and dance. In the old days, they were rewarded with food and drinks. In the spirit of these capitalist days, however, their entertainment is in exchange for a fee.
In Dangriga, the house to house and masquerade dancing of the Christmas celebrations continue until El Dia de Los Reyes or Dia Rey (The day of the Kings), (also known as the Epiphany in the Catholic Church). This day, January 6th, is said to be the day the three wisemen arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. On this day the most intense Joncunu dancing takes place and dancers are solemnly dressed in black pants and draped in black ribbons in honor of the dancers who have passed in the previous year.
He stretched his hands to the dancers in the troupe
And waved goodbye to the Joncunu group
And Warini exclaimed as he danced here and there
"Feliz Dia de los Rey-es. See you next year"
Special Thanks to:
Mrs. Paulette Henry
David Ruiz & Family
House of Culture (Benque)
Hilltop Hotel (San Antonio)
Maria Verde of Hotel Krisami (Sarteneja)
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography