We celebrated Boxing Day this year in Brooklyn, land of the largest Caribbean population outside of the islands. My best friend Cynthia, with her Bermuda-Trinidad family roots, has hosted Boxing Day for years. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. Yes, I know Bermuda is not Caribbean, but British! And this is a very British holiday celebrated by thousands of British West Indians as a day for eating holiday leftovers.
Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood friends and family streamed in and out between 4 and 9pm in an open-house fashion. Everyone had a jolly good time catching up on old times. What is Boxing Day? It has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. There are a lot of stories out there. One version dates back to an actual box. During the Middle Ages, the poor box at church was opened on the ‘day-after’ Christmas and the money was distributed to the poor. Some churches still do this on Boxing Day. Medieval servants were given the day off on the ‘day after’ Christmas. Feudal lords packed a ‘Christmas box’ of leftover holiday foods and gave it to their servants and tenants on the ‘day after’ Christmas.
This seasonal tradition has survived since slavery times as a way for Caribbean people to maintain culture and food legacy. According to Food Culture in the Caribbean by Lynn Marie Houston:
“During slavery, there were seasonal holidays in the Caribbean: Christmas, Boxing Day, Easter (known as Pickannany Christmas), Crop Over Festival and a Yam Festival, that is no longer celebrated.”
Traditional Caribbean Boxing Day menus varied from island to island. Ingredients and preparations reflected the diverse mix of people – Native, African, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, English, Scottish, Irish and more.
The following ‘cook-up’ (a combination of leftovers and freshly made food) was served by a composite of my friends and family on Boxing Day: Main-Baked Ham glazed with brown sugar, pineapples and mustard; Chinese LoMein noodles-Vegetarian and with Shrimps; Curry Chicken, Jerk Chicken; Callaloo – Caribbean Greens soup/stew; Long String Beans; Pigeon Peas, Coconut Rice cooked with or without the peas or red beans. Several varieties of hot sauces and chutneys were mentioned. Hors d’oeuvres– Cod Fish Cakes; assorted Baked Vegetable and Meat Patties; and Trinidadian Pastelles-steamed meat patties. Desserts- usually consisted of dense cakes, breads and puddings, including Coconut Cake, Christmas Black Cake, Fruit Cake soaked in rum and Plum Pudding. These cakes were eaten and also given as holiday gifts. Because sorrel and pigeon peas (gungo peas) are in bloom this time of year, you will always find these items on the menu. Beverages such as Sorrel, Mauby, Ginger Beer, various Fruit Punches, Angostura Bitters mixed with Ginger Ale, Wine, and especially island varieties of Beer and Rum were also very popular.
Spend the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean for a unique historical experience. The Bahamas and Bermuda maintain the most elaborate Boxing Day traditions that I have seen so far. On the day after Christmas, the Bahamas streets erupt with excitement with a parade called Junkanoo. Music, food, dancing, handcrafts and fun highlight this carnival. Bermuda’s acrobatic Gombey troupes wear elaborate African masks and costumes as they wind their way through the streets with music and dance.
Also called St. Stephen’s Day, named for a saint who was martyred, Boxing Day is steeped in history that has evolved in a variety of ways in the Commonwealth and around the world. If you search online for ‘Boxing Day’ you would not find much that is Caribbean. Instead you will see lots of Australian and United Kingdom shopping ads as if it were Black Friday.
Have you ever celebrated Boxing Day?