If you hear a group of carolers at your door singing: “Good mornin’, good mornin’, ah come fo’ mi Guavaberry” then it’s time to bring out the Guavaberry rum. This is a local libation made by families from a generations old recipe. The key ingredients are guavaberries. These bright red blueberry-sized berries grow on the mountainous northsides of the islands at high elevations and ripen in December. The mashed berries are mixed with flavorful essences, citrus peel, spices, rum and a small ‘seed’ amount from the previous years’ batch and then allowed to steep for several weeks. The result is a potent liqueur. In olden times, carolers were invited inside for a quick meal of guavaberry rum, sweet bread and sliced ham to fortify them before resuming their singing down the street.
Island-style sweet bread is a cross between a rich bread and dessert. It is made from yeast dough, thus requiring home bakers to work like elves in their kitchens all night long to mix, knead, proof and bake the breads. The sweetness comes from a combination of sugar and dried fruits, while spices typically include cloves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom and cinnamon. Some bakers combine dried fruits like raisins, currents and prunes in a large bottle and steep them in rum or brandy for several weeks – or months – before adding to the batter. Whole pieces of dried fruits, including candied red and green cherries, are artistically laid in the top of the dough to make a signature design.
Traditionally, even neediest families had a big bone-in ham at Christmastime. This was either purchased from pennies saved or as a gift from a thoughtful neighbor, employer or even shopkeeper. Decades ago, it was common for Virgin Islands’ grocers to hand out hams to their customers in appreciation for their patronage during the year.
Island residents today line up outside refrigerated trailers to purchase their Christmas pine imported from the U.S. main-land. Long ago, they instead went in search of an inkberry tree or the brown dried stalk of a century plant or agave that had flowered a few months prior. Both of these grew in the wild; the inkberry in the islands’ forests and the century plant or agave on the arid eastern end of the islands. The trees or stalks were brought inside, propped up in a rock-filled container and decorated with items such as small candies, crepe paper or bits of fabric. Some also would spray paint the century plant stalk silver or gold for an extra festive flair.
In days gone by, churches or neighborhood friends formed choirs and started caroling right after midnight on Christ-mas Eve. Singers were accompanied by scratch bands, with instruments ranging from banjos and guitars to wash-boards, dried gourds and small drums. Songs were a combination of hymns and folk tunes passed down through the generations. Today, you’ll hear ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Rudolph’ or ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ too if you go to Emancipation Gardens on Christmas morning. Choirs from all over the island compete in the ‘Challenge of the Carols’. You don’t need to dress with hats, scarves and mittens, but this Christmas morning tradition is so joyous it could give you goose bumps!