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EASTER is a very solemn occasion for St Lucia.
A highly Catholic community (as much as 80 per cent of the population), says Tecla Fontenard, people begin observing Holy Week on Palm Sunday, which was last Sunday, by abstaining from all dairy products, whether butter, milk or cheese.
Meals around this time primarily consist of fish and staples (mainly ground provisions).
“We’re not so much a rice-eating people,” she said.
All week long, there are also special church services in the evenings. But on Holy Thursday evening, there is a special Mass called ‘The Last Supper’ at which the highlight is the washing of the right foot of 12 elderly males who attend church regularly. Another peculiar feature is the singing of water-related hymns.
While she does not fully understand the significance of this ritual, Tecla says she knows that her grandfather’s feet got washed pretty regularly.
Unfortunately, this little practice seems to be dying out as, whereas before there was competition to see whose feet would be washed, this year they had the devil’s own job finding 12 grown men. Instead, she said, they had to make do with younger lads.
Another trend that also seems to be slowly losing ground is the exercise of temperance on Good Friday, a day St. Lucians took rather seriously in the past, particularly in the countryside where she is from.
Born and raised in Choiseul, home to ‘Gros Piton’ the bigger of St Lucia’s two famous mountain peaks some 40 miles from the capital, Castries, Tecla said: “When I was growing up, Good Friday was an extremely solemn day.”
Solemn in the sense that dance music, whether soca or else, was prohibited from being played on the airwaves that day. In fact, all partying ceased the day before Ash Wednesday.
In the homes, children were not allowed to speak above a certain decibel.
In the Fontenard household, to be in breach of this sacred edict was not only tantamount to sacrilege, but also put oneself at risk of being called ‘Judas’, after that infamous biblical figure who it was that betrayed Christ while the disciples were having their ‘Last Supper’ and was so overcome with remorse that he disemboweled himself.
And, like almost everywhere else in the Anglophone Caribbean, it is also against the Law in St. Lucia for shops of any sort to do business on Good Friday until after six in the evening.
But, like everything else, there are always the hardy few who are only too willing to bend the rules. Falling into this category are the proprietors of rum-shops, where one is bound to find a back window open, particularly for those who cannot do without ‘a drink’.
Fasting on Good Friday is yet another thread common to the Caribbean, whereby most Christians, no matter their denomination, try not to eat a heavy meal before three in the afternoon - or ‘The Passion of the Lord’ as it is called in St Lucia - which is when most church services end.
Meals on this particular day take a slight twist for St. Lucians, in that salted mackerel takes the place of fresh fish and is always in high demand. This is tradition, says Tecla, though some may prefer ‘smoke-herring’ as we call it here in Guyana, or salted cod-fish, which, again, in Guyanese parlance is better known as ‘imported sal’fish’.
Traditional, also, is the way the mackerel is sold - in little pails in the very brine in which it was preserved - as well as the way in which it is prepared: Spartan-like; soaked in lime, then fried bare, without any seasonings.
Gravies or broth of any sort are also out of the question, as this would take away from the image of piety one is supposed to project that day.
Another favourite on this day is a shapeless type of ginger-biscuit they call ‘penepis’. Brittle in texture, the main ingredient, besides flour, is a generous helping of ginger, which accounts for the slight discomfiture one has to endure in savouring this delicacy. But according to Tecla, that’s the whole purpose of the exercise: “It’s supposed to burn!”
Discomfiting or not, it’s perhaps the first meal many eat for the day, as the women who sell them make it a point to be just outside the church door when service ends so as they could catch the day’s sales. Peddled from large bamboo baskets and sold in pieces, perhaps the closest thing we have here to the ‘penepis’, Tecla says, is the cassava bread.
Did we mention the fainting spells? This too, according to Tecla, is almost tradition now, as not a year goes by without someone falling into a dead faint at Church from the sweltering heat, which is common at this time of year.
Among other factors which no doubt help aggravate the situation, she said, is the propensity among the populace for wearing dark, mourning colours on this day, and maintaining their fast until the Service is over.
Small wonder it is then that the younger generation can’t wait for Holy Saturday, when everything returns to normal; the all-night parties; the rum drinking; and the sound of sweet soca music belting out over the radio.
Over in Barbados, another predominantly Christian society, the trend is pretty much the same, such as the abstinence from meat throughout the Lenten season, and the solemnity and prohibitions on Good Friday among other customs observed at Easter.
There too, fish is very much in demand during this period, a time when, according to Jacqui Wiltshire-Forde, “fishermen have a field day.”
On Good Friday, however, no one goes near the sea; not even to the beaches. This is because it is commonly believed that the sea is very angry that day, even when it looks calm.
To while away the time, kids amuse themselves by divining the future with a glass of rainwater and a ‘fresh-laid’ egg.
Unlike St Lucia, kite-flying is a big thing in Barbados; so big that there is a grand competition every year down at the Garrison Savannah out in the capital, Bridgetown. Kite-making, too, used to be a popular past-time, but not any more, now that the local ready-made kites and imported plastic variety have taken over the market.
But time was, Jacqui said, when making kites was so big that people used to devote a lot of time and energy to strategising how they would go about making theirs, particularly if they were entering the competition.
And, though Suzette Martin swears that kite-flying is not a big thing in her native Jamaica, Trinidadian Pat Ganase, writing for the March/April 2001 edition of the ‘Caribbean Beat’ told of the annual Jamaica Kite Festival, said to be the largest in all the Caribbean.
According to Ganase, that year alone saw as many as 25,000 enthusiasts participating in the festival which was held over a period of two days (April 15 - 16) on the grounds of the Drax Hall sports complex and polo field near the Parish of St. Anns, not far from where Reggae legend Bob Marley was born, in hill-side district of Nine Mile.
At the end of the day, however, Suzette was technically right, in the sense that 25,000 is a mere drop in the ocean for a country which has a population of more than two million.
And, just as Good Friday is not Good Friday to a Guyanese if he doesn’t have his ‘hot cross buns’, so too it is with Jamaicans without their famous ‘bun ‘n’ cheese’. Mind you, said Suzette, Jamaicans eat ‘bun’ all year round, but come Lent, they must have it with cheese.
She confirmed that Jamaicans, too, traditionally abstain from eating meat on Good Friday. Needless ask what they eat instead, for the answer is none other than FISH.
The same holds true for Grenadians, who, according to fellow countryman, David Lord, are very fastidious in their observations during the Lenten season. This is particularly so during Holy Week, he said.
It is also the time of year you see people at Church you don’t usually see at other times, which is pretty much the same gripe you hear here in Guyana around Old Year’s Night in particular.
Like the craving for hot cross buns, kite-flying, too, is pretty low-key in Grenada. What is hot, however, is picnicking on the beach, owing to the humidity. Cricket is also a favourite pastime this time of year in Grenada, particularly among the youths who seize the opportunity to organise cricket matches countrywide.
To find out what happens at Easter in the Bahamas, we called upon Alicia Sands, who only recently arrived and according to her, is enjoying every minute of her stay here.
Born to a Jamaican mother, she confessed to having a hard time sometimes figuring out which side of the family tree she’s really on, particularly when it comes to anything to do with foods.
She told us, however, that the favourite meal for breakfast on Good Friday is spiced boiled fish and grits, though some may substitute the latter for something called ‘Johnny-Cakes’, which bears a close resemblance to the Jamaican dumpling, or the regular ‘hot cross-bun’.
Like the Grenadians, Bahamians too, frequent the beaches this time of year, but for a totally different reason. According to Alicia, it is the first they are able to venture into the water since the temperature becomes bearable around this time. After October, she says, no-one goes near the beaches much: the water is too cold!
As for kite-flying on Easter Monday, Alicia said this is new to her and that she’s looking forward to tomorrow.
Lastly, we called on the Cuban Embassy to give us an inkling of what, if anything, takes place there at Easter. Turns out that our first hunch was right, as the Cubans, despite being a predominantly Catholic society, do not celebrate Easter with the same fervour as the rest of the Caribbean.
From the little he knows, said the Consul, Mr. Alberto Gonzalez, Good Friday is not a public holiday as it is here and elsewhere in the Caribbean, though the Catholics do their celebration at church or wherever the occasion is being observed.
What the Cubans place special emphasis on, he says, is the celebration of something called ‘Semana Santa’, which, when roughly translated, means ‘Week of the Saints’.
A custom that has its genesis in Santeria, which again, when roughly translated, means ‘Worship of the Saints’, Gonzalez says the festivity usually begins around April 20 and goes until around the 25th or 26th of the month.
During this week, he said, people may either take their celebrations to the streets, or go to the beaches. Yet others prefer the solitude of the cinema, where there is bound to be some movie or the other to do with the Saints.
As part of the celebrations, he said, people also offer sacrifices to the Saints, in the form of animals and a special plant, ‘Guano Bendito’ or the ‘Blessing Palm’, which sounds pretty much like the palm fronds we use here on Ash Wednesday.
And, with this, we come to the end of our investigation. Happy Easter!