Preparing for Redemptive Merry-Making with a Jamaican Christmas Tradition

     I was truly surprised by joy when I gave in and read Matthew’s entire list of names in Jesus’ genealogy through his earthly adoptive father, Joseph. Ken Gire’s writing the Scripture at the top of the first reading in his devotional, Moments with The Savior, subtly compelled me. His insightful commentary, describing the earthly genealogy of Jesus as,

“…a lineage of grace, a testimony to the reach of (God’s) love throughout the generations.”

Lineage of Jesus1

deftly guided me to fuller appreciation of the importance of never discounting even one word of the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. The motley mix that is here laid out for all to see, brought an unexpected sense of relief—a reminder that God means what He says—He is not only willing, but able to redeem all things, causing them to work together for the good of the one who simply admits the desperate need and looks to Him who is Redeemer.

     In Gire’s sifting and sorting through the motley inclusions on Jesus’ family tree, I saw, in stark portrayal against the backdrop of humanity walking in darkness, the bright promise of Christ, emerging from a hopeless mess, to manifest as the sweet promise the Christmas season represents in eternal terms—Mankind’s full redemption.  The glee that surprised me was reminiscent of that which would peep out at us children from market and grocery bags, when the Trade Winds we called ‘Christmas breeze’ would start to blow across the hills and plains of our island home, and the traditional Jamaican household begins to move towards preparing for it. The items in the bags promised a sweet and wonderful treat that would soon be ours, along with all the fellowshipping, joyful family gathering and community merry-making that it would foster—the making and sharing of the Jamaican Christmas cake tradition!

christmas cake3.jpg    On my kitchen counter sits two large bags of organic raisins, and an equally large bag of prunes, waiting to recreate that memory, in another land, in hope nevertheless, of sealing a prophetic moment for our family this Thanksgiving, as we try to handle family history redemptively. By the end of October, the traditional Jamaican mother-householder has put her fruit to soak— that is, she has seeded and cut up prunes, washed and dried raisins and currants and put batches of them to soak in jars with a mixture of Jamaican overproof rum and Red Label port wine. This is all a precursor to the later grand baking of the cakes, for family festive dining, as well as for entertaining those expected to visit or just stop by throughout the holiday season. This delectable culinary treasure, no doubt, entered the Jamaican culture via the British of our slave- colonial past, the appearance and ingredients being similar to the British plum pudding.

   I am grateful that my mother held to this tradition, though hers was a modest deal: a couple cakes for the immediate family, one for her parents, who lived a few miles away, and one for the visitors likely to sporadically pop in. For my Aunty P, however, who lived on the other side of our extended-family-dwelling, with my paternal grandparents during my growing up years, this was a major happening, almost a community event in scope—complete with laughter, conversation, the sounds of the wooden spoon pounding on the side of the large mixing bowls and the constant whirring of the hand mixer as one of us helped whip the eggs. It was an act of merry-making in itself, this making of cakes that would be given to friends, folks and family and often even shipped to them many miles away, overseas.

christmas cake2     The batches of fruit were substantial and the heavy bowls of batter, comprising pounds of butter, sugar, and flour, which would soon receive the dozens of whipped eggs, seemed massive to my young eyes. To an outsider happening upon the scene, after the fruit mixture, mixed spices, vanilla, brown food coloring, and more wine were finally added, it would probably seem just a gargantuan tub of mud-colored sludge, until …Until!!!! poured into a myriad of lined pans and baked at just the right temperature they became that unimaginably fragrant batch of wonderful Jamaican Christmas cakes that filled the house with the heady festive aroma, sizzling tantalizingly, as more wine and rum are drizzled on.  Other than preparing to sing in the school choir for the glorious carol service at the Parish church, the Sunday School Christmas Program of our neighborhood church and the family Christmas dinner, these sights, sounds, and smells are still my strongest association with Christmas merry-making and sharing!

     As October closed this year, my mind began, perhaps instinctively, to reach out for the Christmas theme that would best connect our family’s holiday gatherings this year with things joyful and eternal, beginning with Thanksgiving— what would be at the heart of our merry-making? And God’s Holy Spirit was faithful to supply it again. In seeking to build our young cross-cultural family, we early realized we had to be intentional in seasons that invoke family of origin memories and traditions, for even sweet memories can come laced with the poison of sad, bad and mad relics—ghosts of human relationships and seasons of generations past or more recent—memories we wish we could erase from the line. But God did not so exemplify. Gire, in describing some of the branches included in Messiah’s family tree, employed words such as, “bent, broken, blighted, twisted and uncultivated”. What a relief that when God came to save us, He knew what He was getting into and did not balk; He is not fazed by broken imperfect storylines. In fact, that’s why He came.

     So, like David, we try to run in faith towards those looming specters, instead of cowering each holiday season, awaiting their dread effect, meeting them head-on—seeking to acknowledge and discern God’s redemptive work through them all. Our hands-on His great ones, sifting and sorting family and cultural traditions, tracing our prophetic history, looking to see, like our Jewish friends still do in their Seder observances—including the bitter herbs alongside the sweet Charoset, facing the bitter past without rancour, accepting it as the dark thread that will make the good times shine even more brightly, when God breaks through. In this way we demonstrate our trust in the Sovereign hand of a good God who is at work, not only on the grand scale, but also in the low estate of our family lineage, weaving away at His grand “Poeima”, healing, restoring, bringing all things together under Him who is the Head.

     Thus, the simple tradition of putting the Christmas cake fruit to soak before Thanksgiving creates anticipation and makes tangible now the full reason for merry-making then, when we celebrate at Christmas that the Savior came! unveiling God’s love and setting His salvation plan in motion. Yes, merry-making, and all manner of effort to that end, is eminently warranted! Purposefully anticipating ensures that when the last morsel and tinsel of the merry-making season is finally savored and supped away, like the last drops from a sweet cup, then what’s left behind is deep satisfaction and also a well-developed palate and appetite for more. It is like the longing after the final crumb of Christmas cake is eaten, which grows on you and leaves you wanting more but willing to wait another year for the Season with the Reason. I wonder if Aunty P knew the extent to which she was cultivating merry-making at its best—an appreciation for everything in its time, for the glory of Him who weaves all our broken stories into His glorious One.

 

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