What Christmas looks like in the Caribbean
Shortly after All Saint’s Day in November, there is a seasonal abundance of oranges and mandarins on the island. For this reason Shrubb, an orange liqueur, is Martinique’s traditional Christmas beverage. You can buy a commercial bottle from any grocery store, but all the best ones are homemade.
Macerate peels of oranges, mandarins, and tangerines in white rum with cane sugar and other spices, and then leave the bottle in the sun to allow the flavours to marinate. It’s similar to Cointreau, though slightly spicier.
Other festive drinks you should stock up on are Punch Coco (a creamy rum punch made with coconut milk), Alexandra (a creamy grenadine-based liqueur), sorrel (a juice made with hibiscus flowers), and, of course, champagne.
By mid-November, you’re able to buy An Nou Chanté Noël, a collection of French Christmas carols that differ lyrically from those in mainland France. The choruses are often in Antillean Creole, the French-based creole spoken in places like Haiti, Dominica, and French Guiana. The hymns are sung to the rhythm of biguine, a style of music originating in Martinique that’s characterized by the tambour bèlè (an open-bottom drum with a goatskin head) and the ti-bwa (two wooden sticks that play on the back of the tambour), and call-and-response.
These Christmas carols are strictly reserved for the period from Advent until the night of Christmas, and this booklet will be your lifeline at the traditional Martinican celebrations called Chanté Nwel.
Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be invited to a family or small community Chanté Nwel, where everyone brings traditional Martinican Christmas fare and drinks to share, and everyone sings and dances together. The most heavily attended Chanté Nwel are those that feature the best Kantik groups, and are essentially large concerts with people holding their booklets and singing songs like “Tire le cochon” (“Gut the Pig” — more on that shortly) to the tune of “Jingle Bells” and dancing.
No matter which kind you attend, these evenings are made up of a lot of joking, laughing, and letting off steam, where even your most stoic coworker can be found singing and enjoying themselves.
Pigs are essential to Christmas in Martinique; as the France-Antilles, Martinique’s national newspaper, put it: “There is no Christmas without pigs.”
Though some families raise their own, many Martinicans go to the abattoir to choose the pig they’ll eat on Christmas. Pork is so important that Martinique has two festivals prior to Christmas devoted to pork specialities.
If you spend Advent in Martinique, you will eat a lot of boudin (a Creole blood sausage), pork pies, and jambon nwel (“Christmas ham” — a marinated, smoked, and caramelized ham). But these are simply the appetizers. The traditional dish that most families eat on December 24th consists of a pork ragout served with pigeon peas (certainly sprinkled with lardons, French bacon bits) and yams.