Jamaica Gleaner / Just imagine for a moment that you are transported back in time. It’s 1930 rural St Catherine, a small district known as Bellas Gate, a few days before Christmas.
A refreshingly cool mountain breeze ruffles the leaves of the nearby trees. Donkeys in a distant field bray as the local farmers attempt to load their ground provisions into hampers to be taken to the market in time for the Christmas sale.
That was a typical day back when the Christmas season was more a community-oriented event. Those days are now only experienced through the memories of those who lived them such as the affable centenarian Isola Mamby – memories she is only too willing to share.
Born on March 15, 1917, Mamby was raised in Bellas Gate with six siblings. It was while there that she experienced Christmas as a youngster.
“Growing up in Bellas Gate was a good time. We were seven siblings for my parents – five girls and two boys – and we had fun, particularly at Christmas time. It is not like now,” she mused.
Christmas shopping was reserved for her mother, who would travel to Kingston to buy the latest in gifts to be taken back to the country.
“I was very happy at Christmas time. My father was always in the background, and he would just allow mother to do whatever she likes.
“On the farm, we had cows, donkeys and mules, and horses. My father had a horse named Magic, and we used to race
him with Mr Rhone’s horse. Magic used to beat him each time. Father used to also kill cows and share it with the community. That was how I spent my early years during Christmas,” said Mamby.
The killing of the cow, she stated, was a special time, each time marked with a ritual involving the bursting of (scribbs) fire crackers that were placed all around it during the celebration. After that, all the children were sent away and the cow butchered and shared up between relatives and community members.
“That was something I remember seeing when I was around 14 years old. It’s part of something that we no longer see. I think people have become too selfish and less friendly because times have changed,” she noted.
Recalling the Christmas Day meal, Mamby said that preparations would begin days earlier, with all the boys gathering firewood.
She would wake up to the scent of plenty food such as beef and chicken, rice and peas, and soup early Christmas morning before the family made the short, but always meaningful, trip to church.
“It was a beautiful feeling. We skipped along the way to church on Christmas morning. It was really joyous,” she recounted.
“And while we walked and skipped along, our mother would ride the horse, sitting sideways and cutting her ten, and just trotted to church. Just beautiful,” she said, with a beautiful smile.
But what would an old-time Jamaican Christmas experience be without the sorrel drink?
“Hmmmm, hmmm. Of course, you couldn’t have Christmas without that and the Christmas pudding and wine. Those helped to make it special, too,” Mamby shared, while seated in the cool of a shaded area in her yard in Hope Pastures, St Andrew.
Unlike children today, all fascinated with the latest computerised gadget, back then, according to Mamby, it was ring games and other activities that were the in thing.
“Back then, we had quiet fun. It was real fun. But all that has changed. People now are into noise. There has to be noise, it seems, for people to enjoy themselves at Christmas.”
Christmas in Kingston
The Mamby family moved to Kingston some years later, and as a young adult, Mamby said that she used to “dress to kill” and would elicit “whistles and sweet talk” about her figure and legs, especially during her walk along King Street at Christmas.
“I used to wear stockings and high-heel shoes, and walking down King Street, the boys would say, ‘You ought to take out insurance on those legs’,” she said with bright laughter.
“It was our Times Square. Back then, downtown was clean and pretty. It was a treat. All this has changed now. But I can remember well the ole-time Christmas and how we enjoyed it,” she said.