The phrase “Mi bawn cum si…” is one frequently used by Jamaicans to fully express the deep history that accompany many of the cultural traditions which exist in the society today. Not surprisingly, a lot of these traditions are centered around food and/or family, and, with all the modern trappings of today’s generation, they still hold a firm place in Jamaican life both at home and abroad. Here are 7 Jamaican traditions that have stood the test of time.
1. Nine night/ Set up
The long held tradition of ‘Dead yard’ or ‘Set up’ is used to celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed away while offering support to the family during the grieving period. The custom, which originated from the African culture was used to celebrate the life lived and also to give a proper ‘send off ’for the spirit of the individual. As the name suggests, the celebration which usually involved a lot of food, rum, singing and dancing, was originally held for a duration of nine nights before the funeral. However, in recent times, this tradition has been downsized to the eve of the burial.
2. Sunday rice and peas
For many Jamaicans, no Sunday dinner is complete without a pot of rice and peas simmering in coconut milk in the kitchen. For some, if it’s not rice and peas then it cannot be deemed as a proper Sunday dinner - that’s one of the unspoken food rules. The recipe is usually white rice cooked together with dry, red kidney beans, however other beans and peas are also used including the popular gungo peas at Christmas time. Nowadays, rice and peas is served in some places every day of the week, and Sunday dinner has seen some diversification. However, the dish still remains wildly popular especially when inviting guests to dinner, and is complimented with a delicious helping of either chicken, fish, oxtail, or beef.
3. Sorrel at Christmastime
One of the oldest traditions associated with Christmas in Jamaica is that of drinking sorrel. It is speculated that the sorrel plant was brought to the island from Africa in the 1700’s. Although it is now extensively grown in Jamaica and can be harvested all year round, it is the December period that sorrel vendors make the real profit. Jamaicans steep the sorrel in hot water with ginger and pimento in order to make their most favourite Christmas drink. Adding a little rum helps to preserve the drink to enjoy into the New Year.
4. Easter bun and cheese
‘Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.’ Remember that song? It certainly has a lot to do with why Jamaicans eat bun and cheese at Easter. Jamaicans used to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday since the cross symbolized the crucifixion of Jesus. This was a custom which the British brought to the island but since then, Jamaica has moved on from hot cross buns to what we now call Easter bun – a sweet, bread-like loaf laden with spices and consumed with copious slices of cheddar cheese. The practice is so widespread that families stock up on bun and cheese at Easter time, and even Jamaicans in the diaspora ensure that they get their share.
5. Foreign in a barrel
Jamaicans with family members abroad always look forward to their experience of ‘foreign in a barrel’. Especially if children and close families are left behind, you can expect that a barrel will be packed and sent to Jamaica, to send home a taste of ‘foreign’ sweety, soap, cosmetics, food and clothes. This is an old tradition that has been in existence ever since Jamaicans started travelling and settling in other countries. Seasoned barrel packers know that there is an art and science to barrel packing, including the knowledge that certain items like ‘Irish Spring’ and ‘Swiss Miss’ are a must, and finding an agreeable balance for the food to clothes ratio.
6. Back to school ‘worm out’
A ‘worm out’ or ‘wash out’ is just a local term for laxatives usually given to children after the long summer break. It is assumed that since the last two months were spent feasting on mangoes and other summer fruits, and no doubt playing in mounds of dirt, children naturally needed de-worming as part of the health preparations for back to school. This practice is not so widespread as in former days but it is still routine in many households, particularly in rural areas.
7. Christmas Eve ‘bleaching’
Christmas Eve, also known as Gran Market night, has long been known as the time when Jamaicans do their last minute shopping then party into the wee hours of Christmas Day. In every major town, the streets are packed with vendors selling everything from toys, to food to household items. Often, children get to stay out later than usual and be a part of the excitement; viewing the town Christmas tree and shopping with their parents. Each town may have different activities however these usually range from religious services, to club parties, or swanky Christmas Eve balls.