Easter — a personalised tradition

Easter — a personalised tradition

Donna P Hope

Thursday, April 09, 2020

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Today marks Holy Thursday, which is normally the prelude to a long weekend complete with Good Friday and Easter Monday in Jamaica. Schools are usually out and the norm is that those who work usually leave work early today. Many people go on long weekends with family, while others have today as the prelude to a weekend of partying. There will, of course, be church.

Now that things are under curfew, quarantine, or lockdown, the majority of people will stay home. Some have already pulled together their Easter fare of bun, cheese, fried fish, hardough bread, and so on. And, if you haven't already stocked up on your bun and cheese, then this is the day to do it.

Good Friday in Jamaica was long seen as the holiest of holy days, even if one is not a Christian or does not attend church regularly. I have described it as feeling like three Sundays rolled into one. I remember our rural family traditions around this day to include a few interesting practices. First, no fires are lit before midday, because it was considered sacrilegious. So breakfast on Good Friday had to be pre-prepared, usually made up of a mixture of hardough bread, fried fish, with piping-hot chocolate tea with the oil on top. Bun and cheese and sprat fried crispy and dry was also available. We stayed in; reading, telling stories, and hearing about the crucifixion and what the day meant. My mother would break an egg and allow the egg-white to form a pattern in a bowl of water. Whatever you saw in that bowl was your future. We saw many ships and planes and were told that we would all travel someday.

In Jamaica at that time in the late 1970s to early 1980s cars were few and far between, but, even so, the reduction in pedestrian and vehicular traffic was obvious in my then rural hometown, Linstead. People stayed home until just after midday. There was no sound of children playing or people walking by and talking. Once it hit midday we were released from our symbolic curfew and would venture outside. That was the time when we were taken to the tree. I don't know if you ever saw that special tree as a child, but for me it was so awe-inspiring. The legend was that this tree, the physic nut tree, was the same tree whose wood was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. I was allowed to cut the tree just at mid-level and sure enough, as the legend suggested, blood gushed from the tree! I later learnt that the reddish substance that I saw was the sap of the tree rising up, but, as a small child, it was indeed the blood of the crucified Christ. Not a soul could take away my childhood awe. Ah, the innocence of childhood.

In Jamaica, Good Friday and Easter Monday are national public holidays. As a child, all business places, schools, shops, stores, and so on would be closed. If you were lucky, a small cornershop would open after midday on Good Friday so that you could pick up a few necessary supplies. But, usually very little else happened on that special Friday. I still recall the culture shock that overtook me the first Good Friday I lived in the USA. As a Fulbright scholar studying in Virginia, I was fully aware that Easter was not celebrated in the same way as in Jamaica. But socialisation is a tricky thing. On the morning of that first Good Friday there I could not leave my condo to go to my university. It felt so wrong. I was certain that the sky would fall in. Nothing I told myself — this adult woman, full of sense and doing a doctorate — worked. I stayed in that day. Later, I learnt that this was part of the kind of culture shock that you read about and were prepared for in the sessions before leaving Jamaica. But, experiencing a society that went about its business as if it was an ordinary Friday was a major shock. I eventually figured out how to navigate this slippery slope and deal with these cultural differences and was much more prepared when my next Easter weekend rolled around.

Aside from Good Friday, the rest of the Easter weekend in Jamaica has also been reserved for fun, including trips to the beach or attending parties. As a child there would be the odd beach trip on the Saturday or on Easter Monday, but church was obligatory on Easter Sunday.

Today, Jamaica continues to observe the Easter weekend, but far more activity takes place on these days as many younger Jamaicans are certainly not into the strict observance of many of these rituals. Indeed, for many, the beach is still a very big part of Easter activities, and so the weekend is often filled with beach parties in Ocho Rios, Portland, and elsewhere for some. Others may take a quick trip abroad, while others would use the time off from work or school to rest at home, visit family out of town, or go out with friends.

Many Jamaicans in the diaspora, especially my older friends, some of whom migrated decades ago, have a nostalgic feeling for Jamaican rituals at this time. Many order bun and that yellow cheese in the tin to have an old-time Easter observance. For example, Auntie Gwen, my friend in Canada, was busy frying fish while I was preparing this article. She had ordered her tin of Jamaican cheese two weeks in advance from an enterprising Jamaican who brought some in for sale. The yellow cheese in the tin had developed a bad rap in the 1980s as a means of smuggling contraband, and so many Caribbean/West Indian stores would not have it in stock. Some enterprising Jamaicans in the Diaspora fry sprat and other fish for sale at Easter, just as it happened back home in Jamaica.

While studying abroad, I remember many of my friends would receive Jamaican “care packages” with Easter bun and that same cheese. Even those who observe strict food restrictions around flour, sugar, and so on, waive them at this time to be able to participate in what really are cultural rituals that evoke a feeling of home and retain their connection to this place. These rituals help to keep them connected to their strong sense of Jamaican identity and origin.

Then there is the usual comparing and sampling of buns baked by different companies. Though some Jamaicans will swear by a specific bakery and insist that no other Easter bun is better, other whip up their own home-baked bun. I do believe that nothing makes the mark quite like one of those large buns from one of our Jamaican bakeries that turn up at this time of the year.

The tradition of Easter bun was brought to Jamaica by the British, whose hot cross buns on Good Friday were used to symbolise the crucifixion. The British tradition itself can be traced through ancient Greece's baked offerings to the moon; and even farther back in history to ancient Babylon, where baked goods were used to honour deities like Ishtar, the pagan queen of heaven. Bun and cheese at Easter is a well-established Jamaican tradition and many employers understand the importance of these rituals so some companies provide their employees with a package that usually contains bun and cheese at this time of the year. Now that many are working from home I wonder if there will be home deliveries?

Do have a good Easter weekend. However you celebrate or observe it, continue to keep safe and healthy.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.

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