The Caribbean's holiday season can be measured in months, rather than mere weeks. It's a time when family is central and special holiday meals are prepared; from coconut pudding in Puerto Rico to black cake in Barbados. All of this good cheer eventually spills out into the streets, with colorful parades and fireworks by the ton lighting up the night sky.
Travelers will find it easy to join in the festivities, with the added bonus of celebrating far from frigid temperatures.
Bermuda: Christmas Walkabout in St. George's
While most Caribbean cities are as modern as can be, St. George's Parish in Bermuda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a rich historical heritage. On December 5, history literally shines in St. George's, when historic homes hailing all the way back to the 17th century come ablaze with holiday lights, with some decorated homes open for tours. The city's festivities continue with lanes lit by candlelight and costumed re-enactors and carolers setting a celebratory scene.
St. Kitts: National Carnival
Given the popularity of the Carnivals in Brazil and Trinidad, most travelers are conditioned to think of Carnival coinciding with the Spring Lenten season. Not so on St. Kitts, where on December 26, the island kicks into high gear with a riotous week-long Carnival. It's a sensual overload of street parades, masquerades, beauty pageants, calypso contests and costumed stilts walkers, called mocko jumbies. The parade is powered by native sounds of the Caribbean, mainly from steel drums and brass bands. Revelers may visit to let off steam and dance in the streets, but the St. Kitts Carnival also has a historical component, weaving together themes of the island's African heritage with its present-day island customs.
St. Lucia: Festival of Lights
Light is St. Lucia's namesake. The island is named after the real-life Saint Lucia, whose name came from from the Latin word "lux," for "light." On December 12, the island fittingly celebrates a Festival of Lights in the saint's honor. On the big day the island's capital city, Castries, is bedecked with decorative lanterns and a variety of cultural presentations are staged, with light as their focus. Artisans also enter competitions to create the most beautiful hand-crafted lantern. The day-long shebang is capped off with a huge fireworks display.
Jamaica and the Bahamas: Jonkanoo
Once celebrated throughout the Caribbean, Jonkanoo (or Junkanoo) is now most closely associated with Jamaica and the Bahamas. Celebrated since the 16th century by African slaves in the Caribbean, Jonkanoo is commonly believed to have roots in a West African celebration called John Canoe, honoring a wealthy black merchant. During the colonial period, Caribbean slaves were granted a small slice of freedom at Christmas, to gather with family and attend a grand dance. After slavery was abolished, the freed men and women continued the Jonkanoo tradition, as a way to celebrate their West African heritage.
Today revelers masquerade and dance through the streets on Dec. 26, held in towns across Jamaica and the Bahamas. In Jamaica, the party goes strong in Kingston, with Montego Bay following close behind, while Nassau hosts the Bahamas' biggest and baddest displays. Travelers can expect vibrant street parades, with colorfully-costumed dancers moving to the beat of goatskin drums and fifes.
Dominican Republic: Christmas Eve Fireworks
If you're in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Eve, and happen to like fireworks, you're in luck. Each year on December 24, customers crowd into roadside stands and shops to buy armloads of "fuegos artificiales," or fireworks, all in preparation for the big bang once the sun sets. During the early part of the evening, families feast on traditional fare, which they customarily share with neighbors. In the hours before midnight, Dominicans head out into the streets to light up the sky with booming fireworks. Then it's off to midnight mass.
If you're in Santo Domingo during Christmas, try to attend the mass at Basilica Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnacion in the city's Colonial Zone. The cathedral is often referred to as The First Church in the Americas, dating from 1540.
Cayman Islands: White Sand Christmas
During the holidays, many islands in the Caribbean go for all-out light displays of pyrotechnics and full-on wattage. The Cayman Islands also make light the centerpiece of their festivities, with a unique sandy spin. Families lay out the welcome mat for Santa by covering their yards with white sand in imitation of snow. Just as American suburbanites compete for who has the greenest lawn, Caymanian compete for who has the whitest and least-trammeled yard come Christmas morning. The white sand yards are particularly beautiful on moonlit nights.