by Jeff McCord
I was recently talking with an older gentleman driving a cab on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas. With the holidays approaching, the conversation turned to Christmas many years ago when he was a young man.
“We’d go house-to-house in the city of Charlotte Amalie singing carols. At each door, we’d be given sweet bread and glasses of guavaberry wine. By end of night, we’d be fairly lit up!”
Strong drink and the raucous singing of holiday songs, of course, have also been centuries old traditions in Virginia. Colonial villages would designate a Lord of Misrule to act as a sort of master of ceremonies and court jester to lead men through the town singing and making merry.
Dating back to Danish colonial days, an annual Christmas Festival on the U.S. island of St. Croix starts December 26 and runs through New Year’s Eve (locally called “Old Year’s Night”) and into New Year’s Day. The festival slogan is “Kill Ting Pappy” meaning “have a good time.” The festival song has this refrain:
“A time to be merry, a time to be gay.
A time to celebrate and have fun all day.
So come on out and make it snappy
Cause we’re going to have a grand time and kill ting pappy.”
The “kill” may refer to the old name for rum (“kill devil”) while “ting” means “thing” and “pappy” is likely the old year. Kill ting pappy may mean “kill the old year” with rum.
It was guavaberry wine, however, that gave my wife and me our first taste of Christmas in the tropics when we moved to the island of St. John several years ago. The wine, made from the small purple and orange/red fruit of the guavaberry tree, can’t be purchased in stores. Island families compete with each other on the taste and strength of their home-made beverage, which is given away or sold person-to-person.
Fermented guavaberries, dashes of ginger, cinnamon, sorrel, cane sugar and, most importantly, the most aged Cruzan rum available are all mixed with secret ingredients to produce a liqueur that is tasty sweet and surprisingly potent.
“Every year, we’d take a jimmy john, a big jug, and put the guavaberry and rum in it, and put the jimmy john under the bed, not touching it for a year, until the following Christmas, then bring it out,” explained former Virgin Islands agriculture commissioner Arthur Petersen during a recent Christmas Eve presentation (as reported by St. John Source). Quelbe (folk) singers and bands would be paid with guavaberry wine, the commissioner said.
In Cruz Bay, St. John, Ms. Andro Childs told the St. John Historical Society of holidays in the 1930s and 40s. “Thanksgiving signaled the beginning of preparations for Christmas. Special liqueurs had to be prepared, not only bottles of the traditional guavaberry, but also guava and sea grape liqueur. My Mama was a master at blending and creating these drinks from native berries and rum.
During the same period out in St. John’s Coral Bay, Mr. Guy Benjamin recalled (in his book “Me and My Beloved Virgins”):
“How we savored the [Christmas] ham as it steeped in our big iron pot. The water was used for cooking fungi, the skin for our Kallaloo, and the meat for our teeth.”
Fungi, a very popular island side dish is boiled corn meal stirred to a thick consistency with butter, salad oil, lard and salt. It is then rolled into balls. Kallaloo is a mixture of “edible leaves cooked together with fish, crab meat, pig’s tail and flour droplets seasoned to taste and eaten with a ball of fungi,” Mr. Benjamin explained. Kallaloo is popular at Old Year’s Night parties.
My wife, Martha Toomey, found a way to celebrate the tropical holidays and fulfill a community need. Back in Virginia, in 2002 she had started a Commonwealth-wide disability advocacy group called Mary’s Family. Every month dozens of children with special needs would participate in a day of crafts, music and 4-H activities. It was great fun, especially at Christmas. Children could make presents for their families, bake cookies and sing carols. And, of course, Santa would always visit.
When we moved to St. John, Martha transplanted her work with special needs children by becoming “Christmas Tree Martha” (CTM). For the past four years, CTM has served St. John by providing a Santa’s workshop for island children including special education classes at our elementary school. She also rents artificial Christmas trees to young people who come to work on the island during the winter high season. In addition, she designs decorated trees for vacation villas and businesses.
“Everybody on St. John can have a tree — even people who live on boats in our harbors,” Martha explains. “I even import fresh Virginia boxwood so people can make their own kissing balls. All these holiday activities help support Mary’s Family.”
Christmas Tree Martha can be found during the holiday season on the second level of Star Fish Marketplace opposite the Chelsea Drug Store in Cruz Bay, St. John.
At the other end of our sparkling island, on December 12th the non-profit Coral Bay Community Council, the group spearheading the campaign to save pristine Coral Bay from an environmentally destructive mega-yacht marina, is holding its third annual Bizarre Bazaar. Located in the field beside the Pickles in Paradise deli, the holiday Bazaar features the works of many local artists, island crafted beers, musicians, tropical plants and trees and, no doubt, curious donkeys, chickens and goats wandering through the crowd. The event also brings out some of the most colorful human characters St. John has to offer. They include your loyal reporter who will be signing his books “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” and the long awaited sequel “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea.”
Coral Bay knows how to “Kill King Pappy”!