How Jamaican Traditions Work

By: Kathryn Whitbourne  | 

Traditional Jamaican Holidays

Unlike some Americans, Jamaicans like their holidays lengthy. Christmas actually lasts for two days -- in fact, many companies close for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Christmas Day may start off with a 6 a.m. church service. The other popular way to greet the day is with a visit to Grand Market. This is a street fair held all over the island during the holiday season, with vendors selling toys, sweets and crafts, plus entertainment. Parents often take their children to Grand Market on Christmas Day to pick out some toys, while other kids will lie in bed awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus.


Christmas dinner will likely consist of roast chicken, rice and gungo peas (pigeon peas), with sorrel to drink. Sorrel is a plant, not unlike the rooibos (red tea) herb, which is steeped hot, then cooled and mixed with ginger, sugar and white rum. Its bright red color makes it a great holiday drink. Dessert usually features a Christmas cake or pudding, very similar to the type made in England, but with a lot more alcohol.

Another tradition is the Junkunoo parade, which is found in many Caribbean islands and has its roots in slavery. Men dressed in costumes representing the devil, a cow and even a pregnant woman parade the streets in small groups accompanied by drums and flutes, much to the amusement of the onlookers [source: Tortello]. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, people may go to the theater to see the Pantomime (a family musical), which traditionally opens on this day. Some also take the day to visit friends.

Easter is also a big holiday weekend. Many Jamaicans go to church on Good Friday; one holiday superstition involves leaving an egg white out in some water on Holy Thursday and seeing what shape it takes overnight. For instance, if it sets like a ship, travel is in your future.

The most popular Easter tradition is eating bun and cheese. The bun is shaped like a loaf and filled with raisins, cinnamon and other spices, sliced sandwich-style with a piece of cheese in between. Easter is also the start of the annual carnival, featuring costumed parades and bands of calypso and soca musicians. Easter Monday (the day after Easter) will find Jamaicans at the beach or having a cookout.

Jamaicans celebrate a slew of secular holidays as well. August 1 marks Emancipation Day, the day that slaves were set free in the British colonies in 1838. This is celebrated with the reading of the Emancipation Declaration in town centers [source: Government of Jamaica]. August 6 marks Independence Day, when Jamaica received its independence from Britain in 1962. The days around the two events are filled with cultural exhibitions in music, dance, poetry and art, beauty contests, float parades and street dancing.