Cedar Christmas trees and Boxing Day horse races: traditional Bermuda Christmas preparations
Christmas traditions have always fascinated me and for this simple reason, more than 40 years ago, I began to ask older relatives and family friends the question – how did your family prepare for Christmas?
The recollections that I am writing about this Christmas are from my very first interviews in 1980 and my most recent interview with Ronnie Chameau on Christmas in St David’s when she was a child.
For Somerset residents, Christmas preparations began with the booking of the carriage on the ride back from Cup Match in St George’s. Getting the family to horse racing in Shelly Bay on Boxing Day was essential.
Attentions then focused on the selection of the cedar Christmas tree. An identifying family mark was carved into the tree and it remained until Christmas Eve. Usually only the top section or a large branch was taken. In St David’s, a string was tied around the tree to identify it. In other parts of the island the family markings were often ignored, and the tree stolen.
Unfortunately in 1943, during the construction of the US Air Base, two scale insects were unintentionally introduced into Bermuda from the United States. A devastating cedar blight followed and within ten years 90 per cent of the cedars were dead. Before this, there were about 500 trees per acre in the cedar forests.
In 1975 a Development and Planning Preservation Order prohibited the removal of the endemic cedar, without permission.
If you did not grow your own cassava, September was the month to order from the farmers. The children of the pig farmers went from house to house recording orders in a little book. You requested the portion you desired and the price was immediately given. In St David’s, no money was exchanged. They preferred the barter system, using bags of potatoes and various other commodities in exchange. Mixed fruit (citron) for cakes and puddings was purchased in blocks and cut into very small pieces along with raisins. It was then soaked in rum or grape juice for several months.
Early in December, house cleaning began. Summer curtains were taken down, the walls were repainted white or colour washed. Lime had to be soaked for a week. The old linoleum floor covering was removed. The woodwork around the perimeter of the room was revarnished; the furniture, doors and window frames were repainted; the windows were cleaned; the new linoleum was laid and dark red curtains with lace panels were hung. Often, white summer lace curtains were boiled in vinegar and sage bush or soaked in tea to change the colour. Oranges and lemons were hung over door ways and windows. Holly collected from Holly Hill in Smith’s Parish was often used. Everyone described the special smell of houses, ready for Christmas.
Linoleum was invented in 1855 by Englishman, Frederick Walton. It was made of cork dust, linseed oil and other natural ingredients blended to coat strong fabrics. It had a smooth surface, was easy to clean and water resistant. Chesley White’s store in Hamilton sold linoleum. You selected your pattern and it was delivered.
Parents and children studied catalogues. National Bella Hess from America, John Noble, Oxendale and JD Williams from England. Clothes, household items and gifts for the family were ordered. The island was serviced frequently by ships and orders from America arrived within three weeks. By the 1940s catalogues from Eaton’s in Canada became popular.
Children whose mothers made paper flowers and fly catchers went door-to-door taking orders and displaying samples. Fly catchers were folded, multicoloured, tissue paper ornaments, which hung from the ceiling. In those days there were no window screens so, although decorative, their main purpose was to attract flies. Black Flag, the oldest insecticide brand in America, established in 1883, was sold as a fine powder and strategically dusted about.
Early in December, the Gift Clubs began paying out. The Gift Club was an old savings plan, said to have been introduced to Bermuda by West Indian men employed in the dock yard. In those days, you paid sixpence a week and in December you received all the money contributed, plus a little interest. The Gift Clubs also provided financial aid to their unemployed or sick members as well as assisting in burial costs. Dukie Smith, in Somerset, ran a club with 900 members.
In 2017, new money-laundering regulations outlawed this 100-plus-year-old practice.
Shops were well stocked with shoulders of ham. They hung in cloth bags from hooks in the ceiling so that air could circulate around them. Many shops gave gifts of tinned fruit to their valued customers.
Christmas carols were only sung during Christmas week and cards were only sent to family and relatives.
Around 1929, Mr Sylvester of Sylvester Farm, St George’s, built a fire so that all his neighbours could boil their puddings. Everyone took turns tending the fire and the puddings. Some boiled their pudding for 6-8 hours on a kerosene, sometimes called, “blue flame stove”. A silver thrupenny (three penny) piece was often placed within the pudding for good luck.
In St David’s, Mrs Chameau’s brothers prepared and attended to the fire all day. This was a far more cost effective method as no kerosene was required. Once cooled, her mother sliced apples over the top, covered it with cheesecloth and fitted it back into a covered tin.
For many families, Christmas was the only time mineral, now known as soda, was ordered. It was one of the few times children were allowed their own bottle and it was situated at every place setting on the Christmas table along with the Christmas crackers.
In Somerset there was the Somerset Mineral Water Factory, also called Foley’s, the JHP Patterson’s Mineral Water Factory and the Royal Navy Mineral Water Factory, which served the naval residents of Dockyard. In Hamilton, there was the Colonial Mineral Factory, established in 1907, below the Manchester Unity Lodge. In St George’s there was Higginbotham’s on Water Street.
Just before Christmas, the factories offered children thrupence a bottle for collecting discarded beer bottles. The flavours of the minerals were varied and many. Sarsaparilla, cream soda, strawberry, orange, pineapple, ginger ale, sweet and dry. Dry ginger ale was used for mixing with “strong drinks”. The marble bottle was used for ginger beer and soda water. Many families made their own ginger and root beer.
Cassava takes a year or more to mature and the old farmers found that it grew more quickly in red soil. The preparation of the cassava pie was a lengthy one. The cassava roots had to be dug up, peeled, soaked and washed to remove poisonous substances. An ice pick was used to pierce the side of a kerosene tin to create a grater. Grated cassava was placed in a flour bag, hung from a hook and allowed to drip for several hours. The cassava drippings formed a starch which, when left to dry, became a fine powder. Mixed with milk, it was administered to children with diarrhoea or mixed with kerosene for starching the curtains. The addition of kerosene prevented the starch from sticking.
One year there was a shortage of cassava forcing families to improvise. Some used grated sweet or Irish potatoes and even cream of wheat. One person recalled the year, turkeys were imported from South America. On the journey they had been fed fish, resulting in a “fishy” taste. Others recalled the year so may people had the “flu”, that turkeys were delivered to Miles for roasting. Some took the 7.30am steamer from Somerset Bridge to Hamilton to deliver the turkeys. Others tied down the turkey’s legs and took them in horse-drawn buses. In Somerset, there was Claude Terceira’s 9am or Graham Ingham’s 10am bus.
The butchers rose before dawn on Christmas Eve’s Eve in preparation for the slaughter of the pigs. Fires were built under kerosene drums filled with water. Large galvanised tubs were put in place. The slaughtered pig was transferred to the large tub and boiling water added. This made it easier to remove the hair. Some butchers took the intestines to the seashore to be washed and cleaned with sage bush or cedar brush. Many boiled them for the speciality, called chitlins. Butchers worked throughout the day delivering all orders. There was no government inspection of meat. Young boys waited for the pig’s bladder, which would later be used as a football. It was washed in vinegar, salt and water then put to dry. Once completely dry, the bladder was powdered with French chalk and inflated.
The pig’s head was boiled, meat and fat were removed, pickling spices and vinegar added. This was called Souse. It took about three days to set as there was no refrigeration.
On Christmas Eve day, food preparations continued. People lived more united and neighbourly. Women were up all night cooking. This began as soon as they got home from work. In Smith Hill they went house to house helping each other with cake and pie making. An old fowl was plucked and boiled for the cassava pie. Turkeys were plucked and roasted. The pork was boiled and some was roasted. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, eggs were collected and stored in white sand to keep them cool. They were rotated every day. In the evening the cassava pie was made from a mixture of cassava, butter, eggs and sugar. Some families used a filling of pork and chicken, others used chicken and beef. The pie was placed in the brick oven, left overnight and basted in the morning. If the humidity was high the pie would quickly go “off”. Fortunately the winters were much colder.
In St George’s, people could take their cassava pie to the St George’s Bakery for baking.
All these food preparations would have been impossible without the preparation of the brick oven. Kindling and soft wood were used to start the fire, then heavy cedar logs were added. It took about 45 minutes to reach the required temperature. Once the bricks turned white most of the coals were raked out, dropped into cold water and set out to dry. Later they were used to heat clothes irons.
Carl Smith described a “great big“ ice factory called The Stalls, located behind where the Irish Linen Shop is today. Blocks of ice weighing 50 to 100lb were stored there. In Smith Hill he remembered icemen coming in donkey carts selling ice, wrapped in crocus bags, on Christmas Eve’s day.
On Christmas Eve, the tree was cut down and brought into the house where it stood in the living or dining room in a two foot kerosene tin filled with white sand. The tree was always decorated after the children went to bed. Some decorated the tree with tiny candles, which clipped on to the tree. Decorations were home-made with cotton, crepe and tissue paper. Crepe and tissue paper streamers hung from one corner of the ceiling to the other. There was a paper bell or flycatcher in the middle near the hanging electric lightbulb.
Helen Maynard recalled the first lighted Christmas tree sometime before 1931. Balloons were a must. Some balloons had a wooden stem to inflate them, others came with cardboard feet into which the balloon was fitted and placed on the tree.
In the 1940s, Mrs Chameau’s family tree in St David’s was decorated with bubble lights, tinsel, balloons and angel’s hair. An exotic round-faced angel was placed at the top. Throughout Bermuda, children did not see the decorated tree until morning.
On Christmas Eve’s day, Mrs Chameau remembered leaving St David’s with her father, bound for Hamilton. Masters Limited was located on Reid Street and upstairs there was a toy department where parents could purchase a surprise package of gifts for boys and girls.
In the evening her father took the children by ferry into St George’s. She had two shillings and sixpence to spend. At Robertson’s Drug Store they purchased the Christmas crackers and she selected a gift of, “Evening in Paris” perfume for her mother. While they awaited the ferry, the Salvation Army band played carols on the Square. Boys dressed in sailor’s uniforms, under the guardianship of Mr Tucker, joined them on the ferry and disembarked at Paget Island. Her family disembarked at the Black Horse.
Mrs Chameau’s mother recalled, that around 1900, Albert Caisey came to dance around the houses in St David’s. On his head he wore a cardboard box, shaped like a house, decorated with colourful tissue paper and lighted candles. He would prance and dance around for monetary contributions or a shot of black rum.
In the book Life On Old St David’s, there is a reference to Gombeys and their chief coming from the East End after sunset wearing no uniforms or fancy dress. Some wore illuminated tissue paper, frame houses on their heads while dancing and prancing to an improvised drum and collecting pennies.
In Somerset, a lone Gombey on stilts roamed neighbourhoods, terrifying children.
Stockings were hung at the foot of beds. Greedy children hung a pillow case. Throughout the night the Salvation Army band with carol singers could be heard passing from house to house collecting monetary donations.
Once the chores were completed, the kitchen floor was scrubbed and fresh new oil cloth was spread over the kitchen table.
The members to the Lodge of the Order of the Ancient Shepherds prepared for their 4am service at St James Church, Somerset. The Lodge was on West Side Road near Ely’s Harbour. Around 3am they gathered, along with delegates from other parishes, in full Lodge Regalia, under the clock at Manchester Unity Lodge.
Once assembled, the Salvation Army band began to play and the Shepherd’s March started. The Shepherd leading the parade carried a crook with a lamp resembling a star. He was always a married man dressed in white, followed by the officials of the Lodge. The band played Whilst shepherd’s watched their flock by night and other carols. Other members wore black, including the juveniles aged 9 to 15. The night was always cold and everyone wore overcoats.
The march progressed along Manchester Street to the water trough at Mangrove Bay, along Cambridge Road to St James Church, where the service began promptly at 4am. The church would be “packed”. Following the service, the Shepherds went back to the Lodge for breakfast.
In St George’s, the Lodge was on Water Street. The procession went from the Shepherd’s Lodge to Wellington, where they were joined by other Lodge members and back to St Peter’s Church.
Some said this practice was discontinued because of the War in 1939, some said older members died; others said it was due to unruly, drunken behaviour in the church.
Throughout the night there were house parties. Carl Smith recalled that in Smith Hill there were lots of callers (visitors). There was carol singing, people playing banjos, guitars and windjammers (accordions). Only the children went to bed on Christmas Eve. Dorothy Taylor, of Somerset, recalled having a house party offering a “door prize”. The winner was extremely disappointed to received an actual door.
In 1980, my 96-year-old great aunt recalled receiving a doll with two heads – a black head at one end, a white head at the other. Children received fruit, candy and nuts. If you were lucky you received a doll, a book, a china or tin tea set, a horn or a ball. Each child received only one gift.
Many families did not eat Christmas dinner until the evening as parents worked from 7am to 5pm on Christmas Day cooking and serving in the homes of affluent White families. For these children, grandparents did their best to fill the void.
On Boxing Day, the Assemblies of the Brethren held conferences throughout the island praying, singing and preaching.
Others came out to see the Gombeys in costumes covered in feathers and tissue paper.
For others, the pre-arranged carriage arrived to take the family, carrying picnic baskets filled with Christmas dinner leftovers, to the Shelly Bay Races. Everyone dressed in their finest clothes. Men in suits and women in long dresses set off for Shelly Bay, visiting friends and relatives all the way down and back to Somerset.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest.
References: Bermuda 1899 by Scott Stallard 1999; Life On Old St David’s by E.A. McCallan 1948; With thanks to Ronnie Chameau, Joy Wilson-Tucker and the 14 deceased participants interviewed in 1980