As November draws to a close, families worldwide prepare for the upcoming Christmas festivities. While the love of the holiday season transcends geographical boundaries and is celebrated globally, the Christmas experience on the island of Martinique is genuinely remarkable. This novel and spirited celebration is characterized by a fusion of cultural influences and traditions, contributing to a unique holiday atmosphere.
Christmas in Martinique seamlessly integrates music and time-honoured customs. Incorporating Christmas carols into the local Creole culture is an exquisite element of the island's holiday season, creating a truly unforgettable experience. Four main traditions lie at the heart of Christmas celebrations in Martinique: Christmas carols “Chanté Nwèl”, traditional dishes, Midnight Mass, and live nativity scenes, brought to life in places likeCase-Pilote, Le François, Basse-Pointe, and Sainte-Marie.
Let's delve into what a Martinique Christmas entails as the island follows its customs and traditions.
Martinique's rich history, shaped by African, French, and Caribbean cultures, combined with its breathtaking landscapes, adds to the distinctiveness of its Christmas celebrations. Unlike the cold Canadian winters, Martinique provides a sunny, beachside backdrop for outdoor festivities…and plenty of illuminating decor once the sun goes down!
With light shows illuminating the island, many towns decorate their streets, buildings, and public spaces with colourful decorations, creating a delightful atmosphere. In Martinique, the Christmas season is graced by "Papa Nwèl," their version of Santa Claus, reflecting the island's unique French-Caribbean culture. Children eagerly anticipate the arrival of Papa Nwèl on Xmas Eve and patiently wait for their gifts. Another cherished tradition in Martinique is attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, mirroring the practices of many Christian societies. The churches are decorated with exquisite decorations, and the services often feature traditional carols and hymns, creating a serene and joyous atmosphere for all.
Table garnie Noel; photo courtesy of Martinique Tourist Office
Martinique's festive dinner starts with an aperitif featuring the compelling introduction of either a savoury red sausage (in “Boudin noir” and “boudin blanc” varieties) or a delicious salted pork pie known as“pâté salé”.
Besides the traditional ti-punch, these delectable starters accompany various punches, including coconut or peanut variants, and a selection of rum or Schrubb (fruity liquor made out of agricole rum and orange peel). Moving on to the main course, a symphony of sweet and sour flavours takes center stage. The renowned and innovative caramelized ham with pineapple steals the spotlight, complemented by the ever-popular and indulgent pig stew. The dish is accompanied by pigeon peas, a legume cooked similarly to lentils, exclusively gracing the plates as the year draws closer. Other island specialties, such as gratins featuring christophines, plantains, or yams, also earn their place at the festive table.
To conclude the culinary celebration, a dessert extravaganza awaits. The traditional Yule log contains exotic flavours like coconut, passion fruit, and guava. Additionally, this sweet finale allows one to savour other local delicacies, including white-eating custard, coconut Mont-Blanc and flambeed bananas.
Fleuri-Noël, photo courtesy of AZ Martinique
Over time, a new tradition has emerged. Historically, the Christmas season in Martinique began in early December. However, in recent years, the "festive period" officially starts right after All-Saint’s Day, which is a reflection of the Christian influences in Martinican history. This date is marked by distributing the first Chanté Nwel flyers and the airing of Christmas carols on the radio. Chanté Nwel, meaning "Sing Christmas," holds significant cultural heritage in Martinique, and participating in these events has become a cherished, modern tradition.
When the time comes to start decorating for Christmas, Martinicans love “decking the halls” with plants, flowers, and trees that may seem unique to those who are most accustomed to North American festive traditions. As one might expect from the “Isle of Flowers”, Martinique’s choice in verdant ornamentation is nothing short of spectacular: sugarcane and poinsettias are in season and flowering, featuring prominently in displays. The Fleuri-Noël, a bush producing white flowers, is a common sight in gardens across the island, beloved as a symbol of the Christmas season. The striking red fruit of the achiote tree, known as annatto or roucou, provides a pop of vivid crimson. While you won’t find any fir trees around the sland to stash presents under, you will find the casuarina: a tropical evergreen tree that looks like a conifer from afar, deceiving with its production of fruits that resemble a cone and pine-like needles.
Red, white, and plenty of green are the signature colours of Christmas in Martinique. With all the joys of the festive season and none of the frigid weather, consider spending your holiday season in The Isle of Flowers this year. Feeling festive? You can learn more about Christmas in Martinique at martinique.org