Many people lament the cultural and commercial juggernaut that is Christmas. Before you have even had time to take off your costume and pull down your decorations for Halloween, store shelves are stocked with candy canes and Christmas lights. The Twelve Days of Christmas is now a two-month marathon of shopping and television specials. But if you think America's Christmas season is long, one country may have us beat – Trinidad and Tobago.
Lots of countries celebrate the holiday with great enthusiasm, and they have their own unique customs. But in many ways, Trinidad and Tobago sets itself apart. I will not pretend to be an expert on Trinidadian food and culture – there are many, many better sources of information on the Internet and around New York City. So many that in fact, according to the 2000 US Census, there were 88,794 people born in Trinidad and Tobago living in the city, making New York technically the largest Trinibagonian city in the world.
As a Trinidadian explained to me recently, they don't celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving, meaning there are no other holidays obstructing the celebration of Christmas, so why not start partying in September? Well, that's not entirely true; due to the country's substantial population of people of South Asian descent, the Muslim holiday of Eid and Hindu Diwali are also widely celebrated in the fall. But the key word is party – unlike our rather sedate family-oriented traditions (office Christmas parties and Santa Con excepted), Trinidadians like to kick back on Christmas. Nothing expresses this attitude better than the country's unique brand of Christmas music. There are actually two kinds – parang, which is related to the folk music of nearby Venezuela, and soca parang, a fusion of parang and calypso that is sung in English. While familiar imagery like Santa and his sleigh abounds, song titles like "Drink Ah Rum" and lyrics like this suggest a slightly livelier celebration than we are used to in the US:
Santa leave the North Pole and come down to Trinidad
He say it too cold in the North Pole
So he couldn't stay, he come down right away
To have some fun in this land of sea and sun.
Soca Santa, don't leave your bag of toys
Don't forget you have to share it with every girl and boy
Soca Santa don't want to ride no sleigh
In a big time Toyota gallivanting all day.
Inspired by the Trinidadian love of Christmas, I decided to make a batch of ginger beer, a traditional drink during the holidays. It's easy to make – though it will need to sit for several days – and it packs a lot of flavor without any alcohol. I got the recipe from Trinigourmet.com, a great resource on West Indian cooking. To make this beverage you will need the following ingredients and cooking implements:
1 lb fresh ginger
1.5 lb sugar
1 gallon water
20 whole cloves
One-gallon glass jug or container
Normally you would drink this ginger beer with a meal of ham or turkey, pastelles, and for dessert, Trinidadian black cake. My family usually has a pretty traditional Christmas celebration; we gather for a big Christmas dinner (this year we had a ham), but the addition of ginger beer and a little parang for background music made the holiday a bit livelier and more memorable. So I hope you enjoy your homemade ginger beer, and even though Christmas is almost a year away, there are plenty of other Trinidadian holidays coming up where you can partake, most notably Carnival – Trinidadians love to boast about their Mardi Gras celebrations, which they claim put Rio and New Orleans to shame – and Brooklyn's West Indian Parade, which takes place on Labor Day weekend.
So enjoy some ginger beer, turn up the parang, and think about the warmer weather ahead.
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions for other traditional holiday cuisine, please leave a comment or contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org). Special thanks go to Brian Hoffman and Allison Radecki, the tour guides for our Food Cart Tour, for their help with this post. The bottom photo in this post is courtesy Jennifer Strader Photography; all other photos are by Andrew Gustafson unless otherwise noted.