Christmas and New Year’s Day are two end-of-year celebrations very much appreciated by the Guadeloupeans. These are moments of sharing with family and friends and good resolutions for the future. Tradition and modernity coexist in canticles, musics, meals, drinks, toys, etc.
Christmas is synonymous with presents. Immediately after All Saints Day, toys replace candles and artificial flowers in bazaars and mass merchandisers so that farsighted parents make their purchases in advance. In addition, brochures that present gifts for children and adults but also victuals for a happy Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve begin to fill the mailboxes. Even if the toys are on the shelves in early November, on December 24, there are still people in the stores surely to take advantage of possible special offers.
In recent years, the traditional wooden toys formerly offered to children and then abandoned for the benefit of imported plastic toys have reappeared.
Christmas is synonymous with illuminations and Christmas tree. From Advent period, balls, garlands and all sorts of electrical decorations invaded houses, public buildings, squares and streets, even though the abundance of illuminations has decreased due to the high electricity prices and efforts made in favour of sustainable development. However, for some people decorating their home during the Christmas season is a true passion. The Christmas tree, either artificial or natural, either green or white, is obligatory in the Guadeloupean homes.
Dancing “chanté Nwèl”
Christmas is synonymous with canticles. So, from the first week of Advent, Christmas songs like the well-known “Michaux Veillait”, “Joseph, mon cher Fidèle”, “Allez mon voisin” or “Dans la Calme de la nuit” are broadcast on the radio and in the shops. The “Chanté Nwèl” (Christmas Song) are programmed in all the communes and cities of the Department. They are livened by musical groups which generally belong to associations, among the most famous, there are “Kasika” and “Cactus”. It is not a question of these small evenings organized with family members to sing Christmas canticles in all simplicity. When you go to a “Chanté Nwèl” is almost like you go to a concert of zouk : you have to get ready to sing but also to swing the hips because the music is very rhythmic, very dancing. These orchestras have added to the traditional repertoire of canticles their own compositions. Apparently, this does not disturb the Church (the majority of the population is Catholic) because the words refer to the birth of baby Jesus, to joy, to sharing, in short, to good feelings.
One of the great Christmas events taking place every year during the four weeks of Advent in several districts of the commune of Vieux-Habitants is “Noël Kakadò” ; the “kakadò” is a small crayfish which was very present in the rivers and eaten by modest families a few years ago. This traditional Christmas event was rehabilitated in 1995 and now it attracts participants from all over the island but also tourists.
A copious Christmas dinner
Christmas is synonymous with Christian religious feast. Even if the commercial aspect seems to have become too important, the mass in the church is compulsory for the believers. The time of celebrations has changed significantly because of insecurity problems. There is no more midnight mass, generally these take place at 19:00 or 20:00 to allow the parishioners to return to their homes as soon as possible. During the ceremony which lasts about two hours, the Nativity Scene where the Infant Jesus was born is presented to the faithful, several texts of the Gospel are read, the choir performs songs in French but also in Creole (accompanied by the drum-ka) what was not possible until about 20 years ago.
Christmas is an opportunity to enjoy a copious menu. Yam, white rice, pigeon peas, browned pork, smoked ham, black pudding make up the traditional dishes. Unfortunately, Guadeloupean producers are competing with foreign producers. These local products – which sometimes cannot meet the local market demand – compete with imported products from Latin America (such as Ecuador for pigeon peas, such as Costa Rica for yams), France (pork and ham, even if this one is prepared “in West Indian style”) and sold at discount prices. To combat this phenomenon, the “traditional markets”, organized before Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, are multiplying on the island. “Jou a Tradisyon” which takes place in December for 13 years is considered as “the biggest agricultural, craft and culinary market of Guadeloupe”. Obviously, the prices are much higher, but the producers of the island justify it by the quality of the goods and the taxes they have to pay to the authorities.
For some years, typical French or European dishes have landed in the hypermarkets : foie gras, salmon, turkey, capon, oysters…
Drinks are rum and the various fruit-based punches that are sold in shops if you do not know how to prepare them ; both “star” liquors are “shrubb” made with sun-dried orange peel and coconut punch. The gooseberry syrup mixed with rum is compulsory at the time. Sorbets, tropical fruits (oranges, mandarins…) are desserts.
A traditional or fancy menu on December 31st
But a dessert which came straight from France has made a spectacular entrance into the Christmas menu in Guadeloupe.This is the famous yule log, a cake which is rolled, covered with cream, elongated like that piece of wood used to feed chimneys in countries with a cold climate. The industrial logs invade the shelves of the supermarkets and are bought by people who do not have a lot of money. But some Guadeloupeans do not hesitate to spend more by going to the bakeries to choose a “local” log because the recipe has been adapted to the tastes of the island’s consumers. At the same time, the temple of consumption that is the supermarket already sells the industrial Twelfth-Night pancake with frangipane which is eaten for the Epiphany Feast, then people also buy it.
Those who can afford to buy a local cake filled with coconut, guava, mango, etc will go to the baker’s.
Chocolate is also part of the Christmas party. Black chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with liquor for example, it is presented in all kinds of very elegant boxes or bags, at affordable or very high prices. The big quantity of chocolate eaten in the country comes from France but some small specialist chocolate-makers of the island are fighting to offer quality chocolate to consumers.
A week after Christmas, people must think about New Year’s Eve. The December 31st menu is also essential. The main course prepared in many homes is more varied and includes, among other things, rice, preferably red beans or lentils (to have enough money), various gratins, lobsters, chicken. On the first day of the year, it is not recommended to eat “slow” animals, it is better to consume “rooster” (coq au vin, for example), a fighter animal, in order to fight and to have chance to overcome life’s difficulties.
On New Year’s Day, people offer mandarins or oranges like gifts ; the first pips are kept in the purses to always have money during the new year… However, the menu can be more sophisticated with some foie gras, smoked salmon, snails, oysters imported from France.
Guadeloupeans, heavy champagne drinkers
A few years ago, advertisements for the menus of many restaurants on the island filled the pages of the local daily newspaper. Because of the economic crisis, road accidents and delinquency, many Guadeloupeans now prefer to spend New Year’s Eve with their family. Nevertheless, some people choose gourmet meals in the restaurant or in private homes that organize chic and paid New Year Eves.
As regards alcoholic beverages, rum produced in the island and rum-based punches are served. But, undoubtedly, the king of the party from midnight is champagne and it flows like water. In December 1996, in an investigative reporting entitled “Champagne : A sparkling market” that I had realized on champagne consumption in Guadeloupe (the very first journalistic investigation on this subject on the island), we learned that our island was ranked first in the world for the number of bottles which are drunk in relation to the number of inhabitants. Twenty years later, the Guadeloupeans continue drinking “the bubble beverage”, all the finest occasions – like New Year’s Eve – are good reasons to pop the cork… Clovis Taittinger, Deputy Director General of the champagne Taittinger, was in Guadeloupe last November, to visit his distributor on the island.
This year again, the national prevention campaign to avoid road traffic accidents because of the speed but especially because of the abuse of alcohol is also broadcast on television in Guadeloupe which has more than 200 000 vehicles for a population of a little more than 402 000 inhabitants and the security forces have announced heavy penalties for the reckless drivers.
Firecrackers, rockets and fireworks
Like any self-respecting Caribbean island, there is no New Year’s Eve in Guadeloupe without music. In homes, restaurants, private parties or in nightclubs, professional or amateur DJs are working. Because the Island of Beautiful Waters is “open” musically, all Caribbean and international musical styles (zouk, gwoka, biguine, cadence, compas, salsa, soca, reggae, merengue, dance hall, RnB, French variety etc.) are played.
During this festive season, sale and use of firecrackers, rockets and fireworks are regulated. On December 31st, when midnight sounds, these explosives will be heard to welcome 2017.
The tradition of midnight swim to the sea and the bath of local plants with various perfumes persists. It is the famous “ben démaré” in creole language. Its objective is to purify the body, to start the new year in the best dispositions.
Finally, on this first day of the year many Guadeloupeans go to mass. According to tradition, it is necessary to wear new or yellow clothes, in any case cheerful colors, a polka dot dress for women, in order to not need anything during the new year…