by Karla Heusner
Edited by Dreddi
More than any other holiday, Christmas is a truly multicultural celebration in Belize. It has to be, with over 10 ethnic groups in a population of around 250,000 people. Christmas traditions are freely shared and borrowed.
So while Belizeans share the European or North American rituals of decorating Christmas trees, hanging lights outside their homes, exchanging greeting cards and baking fruitcakes, they also look forward to homegrown festivities. For what is a Belizean Christmas without a sip or two of country wines, picking up a fork and grater and singing traditional "Brukdown" songs like "Good Morning Miss Lady," and other favorites from the Ole Time Creole Christmas "Bram"? Belizeans still wait to greet the Garifuna Jonkunu dancers on Christmas day, are enthralled by a performance of the Maya "Deer Dance" or a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph looking for an inn as part of "Las Posadas."
Whatever ethnic group, or combination thereof, a Belizean may consider himself or herself to be, one commonality is that Christmas is traditionally a time to visit family and friends. To prepare for all these people making the rounds, weeks go into making everything like "new." Everyone pitches in to clean the house from top to bottom, hang new curtains and lay fresh "marley" (linoleum).
There is a frenzy of baking, searching for fresh ingredients for holiday meals, stocking up of rum and flagging down the coca-cola trucks circling the neighborhoods to load up on cases of soft drinks.
The typical Creole "kriol" Sunday dinner of rice and beans and potato salad is spiced up at Christmas with the addition of turkey, stuffing AND ham in place of stewed chicken followed by rich black fruit cake laced with rum or brandy. The Mestizo specialty is white relleno, a delicious soup with pork stuffed chicken or mechado olives, raisins, saffron, or pebre roast pork with gravy all served with hot corn tortillas. Christmas dinner for the majority of Mayans might be tamales with chicken while families who raise pigs or turkey might use this as a substitute for chicken on this special occasion.
Spirits are an important part of the Christmas season, which in Belize lasts for two weeks, longer than in some countries, yet considerably shorter than the Belizean Christmases of the old mahogany cutting days. Back then, African slaves, free laborers and more recently, in our grandparents' time, the Waikas, an Amerindian group from Nicaragua, used to end their season in the forests with a month-long "spree" in Belize Town, now Belize City.
Although the settlement's men no longer find themselves separated from the womenfolk for months at a time, the festive atmosphere and the free flow of money and rum, remain.
So does the pilgrimage to Belize City, specifically to downtown Albert Street to buy their fancy curtain material, toys for the children or Christmas candies. The buses are packed, and the streets are elbow-to-elbow as shoppers squeeze their way past street vendors selling special imports of apples, grapes and pears.
Central American immigrants sell all manner of glassware, hammocks and Christmas ornaments on the street-side while the more permanent merchants, the descendants of colonial families, or recent arrivals from India or Taiwan do a brisk trade in everything imaginable, from clothing and shoes to porcelain figurines, television sets and cd players.
Of course it is not just about food, or shopping. With over 70% of Belizeans considering themselves Christians, the celebration of the nacimiento (birth of Christ) is well established throughout the country and across the various cultures. Most celebrations from the Las Posadas to the Deer Dance include prayers, vigils and a midnight Mass or "Misa de Gallo" on Christmas eve.
So as you can see, Belizeans still love their Christmas, and the various cultures all contribute something unique to the holiday mix. It is a great time of year to share in these traditions that have been handed down for generations. Join us in Belize this Christmas.
Special Thanks to:
The Inn at Xunantunich
House of Culture (Benque)
David Ruiz & Family
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography