Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

“Old Year’s Night,” New Year’s Day

“Old Year’s Night,” New Year’s Day

by Jeff McCord

As years go….2017 will be remembered by many Virgin Islanders as the worst of their lives. It provides little consolation that the cause of the grief was Mother Nature rather than the usual culprits of war and greed.

This December 31st, the West Indian notion of an “Old Year’s Night” needing to be ushered out seems particularly apt. The hope offered by a “New Year’s Day” is spreading throughout the islands with the return of electricity to many households. Cruise ship passengers and tourists are slowly, steadily coming back to enjoy the majestic scenery and virtually empty, pristine beaches.

Still, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are struggling. Tourism income remains depressed, while living costs and reconstruction expenses have never been higher. No doubt, this year some old folks introduced youngsters to the simple pleasures of traditional “Old Year’s Night” observances.

The joys of preparing and serving kallaloo while sipping island-produced cane rum are ageless. We learn from patriarch Guy Benjamin’s classic book, “Me and My Beloved Virgins,” that 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 fungy.” Fungy, still a staple of island dinner plates, is properly made from “boiled corn meal stirred to a thick consistency with butter, salad oil, lard and salt and rolled into balls.”

Eating kallaloo on “Old Year’s Night” grants good luck for the New Year, especially for lovers. Serving this dish to your loved one that night means there will be a wedding in June.

Many religious West Indians mark the final night of the year with prayer – a tradition dating to the Watch Nights of slavery times. Prayers then focused on freedom and maintaining the continuity of families in an era when slaves were often auctioned in the Caribbean (and U.S.) on New Year’s Day.

For less religious folk (but, those still anxious about the new year), a multi-day carnival-like celebration is held on many Caribbean islands. On St. Croix, a Christmas festival dating to Danish colonial times begins on December 26 (“boxing day,” when servants celebrated Christmas). The traditional slogan of the festival, which ends “Old Year’s Night”, is “Kill Ting Pappy.” It’s also a partying song with 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, then, may translate to “kill the old year” with rum and don’t worry about the future.

People interested in learning more about Virgin Islands traditions should contact the V.I. Department of Tourism. It will direct you to books and articles. Unfortunately, Hurricanes Irma and Maria require a new chapter in any V.I. history books.

This year, the hurricanes also mean Watch Night anxieties for the future likely focus on tourists, the key to financial survival. Sadly, a modern diaspora of sorts is taking place as those without the means to wait for visitors to return (or to rebuild) move to mainland U.S. This diaspora is not limited to African Americans, proving the truth of the West Indian proverb: “Hurricane does blow all skin one color.”

Despite today’s unwelcoming political environment in Washington, DC, U.S. Virgin Islanders are able to seamlessly gain refuge and employment on the mainland. That’s one advantage of the one hundred year union with the United States commemorated during 2017. And, desperately needed disaster relief provided by U.S. government agencies including FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy is another obvious blessing of the union.

Beyond federal help, the USVI received irreplaceable assistance from state and local governments including visiting fire and rescue squads, emergency medical teams and law enforcement officers. Even before governments could respond, private individuals such as country western star Kenny Chesney and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped up with immediate life-saving help that arrived within hours or days of Irma and Marie’s devastating strikes. Non-governmental electric utilities from the mainland are providing hundreds of linemen and other resources to help restore electricity to V.I. households and businesses suffering through four months without power – the longest power outage in American history. (Puerto Rico lost power when Maria struck on September 20, a full 14 days after Irma devastated St. John and St. Thomas on September 6 and most of Puerto Rico remains in the dark.)

Beyond help from American governments and private entities, it is loyal U.S. tourists and part-time property-owning residents who return to the islands generation after generation who provide the only continuing support for the V.I. economy. The unsurpassed and undiminished natural beauty of our islands and the rule of U.S. law are important factors in tourist decisions to visit and invest, surveys find.

This year’s hundredth anniversary of the transfer of the V.I. from Denmark to the U.S. led some islanders to focus on our imperfect union and yearn for independence. The hurricanes and Americans’ generous response and continuing support should be a wake-up call. It’s a night and day choice.

Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on   “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI

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