The Caribbean is one of the most diverse and complex travel destinations in the world, with countless unique cultures and breathtaking landscapes. Among the best times to visit these splendid places, the Christmas holidays are truly inspiring and fascinating. There is such a wealth of authentic holiday traditions that each island and nation can offer an entirely new experience. While many destinations of the Caribbean also have the same usual traditions as most of the world, there are also some special celebrations and customs that are worth a mention.
The word Carnival usually refers to the festivals around the world that celebrate prior to the beginning of the lenten season. However, on St. Kitts and Nevis, the word Carnival takes on a whole new meaning! Travelers to the Caribbean during the holiday season can attend the vibrant National Carnival of St. Kitts that starts on December 26th and lasts for an entire week. It is one of the most joyful and colorful events of the year in the entire Caribbean, with street parades, calypso music, dancing, beauty pageants and many other celebrations. The Carnival has expanded over the years with celebrations, drag races, and concerts starting as early as mid November and lasting through Three Kings Day. You just can’t stop a party this good!
Another fascinating tradition to attend is the Festival of Lights and Renewal in Saint Lucia, celebrated to kick off the Christmas season. During the festival, the capital of the island is beautifully lit by lanterns and the event culminates in a stunning firework display. The locals started hanging handmade lanterns on their doors to “light the way,” but internal competition took the reigns and now children and adults alike put forth their best creations every year to win the contest! The festival is honoring the Feast of Saint Luce, Patron Saint of Light and celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good overcoming evil and the renewal of life. Who couldn’t use a little bit of this festival?!
One of the most special celebrations was once popular throughout the Caribbean and has old African roots. Today, the Junkanoo Festival is best celebrated in Bahamas and Jamaica. It features traditional colorful costumes and masks, street parades with music and dancing troops of up to 1,000 participants. Travelers who wish to take part in the Junkanoo can visit Nassau, Kingston or Montego Bay during Christmas. In Nassau, the official parade takes place late at night (usually from 2am-10am) and people watch from every available square inch. There will be spectators on the street, in the balconies, or hanging from the trees all enjoying the rhythmic music that requires one to dance to the beat! At the end of the famous procession cash prizes are awarded to the best dressed and best dancers so the participants truly put their heart into every second of the event! (The locals have so much fun that they also celebrate Junkaroo in the summertime!)
A unique tradition can be found in Grand Cayman, where people decorate their yards with white sand to resemble snow, creating a surreal landscape. The people of the Grand Caymans loved the idea of a “white Christmas” as much as anyone, but realized the dream would never be reality due to their signature tropical heat. As early as October, women and children would begin gathering sand to decorate their yards. It would be put into large piles and on Christmas Eve, it would be spread around the yard to cover the grass. It is tradition not to walk to on the sand and instead lay a small gravel path to the front door lined by the beautiful pink conch shells that can be found around the island. While not as popular of a tradition anymore, you can still find sand yards all around the island!
Jamaicans embrace the last minute holiday shopping and completely leave the shame behind. In fact, it’s not unusual for a family to only shop on this one day. On Christmas Eve, Jamaicans dress up in the holiday costumes and have a spectacular Gran Market event, where shops stay open to create a colorful and energetic affair. Typical vending rules are cast aside for the event and you’ll see little stalls set-up all along the sidewalks or anywhere else they can find an open swath of land. You’ll find vendors selling anything from holiday decor to toys to clothing. If you need it while visiting Jamaica, it’ll be at the Gran Market!
Throughout the Caribbean, the holiday spirit is present for several weeks or months before the New Year and people enjoy getting together with families and friends around the dinner table. Special meals and delicacies are prepared at these times, unique for each island and its heritage. Pick one and head out to show your family a uniquely cultural experience!