JAMAICA -- In America, the image of Christmas is snowflakes and sleigh bells. Not so in Bethlehem, of course. And more Americans are replacing fantasies of a white Christmas with a vacation in Florida or the Caribbean. Flannel robes give way to T-shirts and bathing suits, snow is forsaken for sand.
Instead of a family gathering around the fireplace, the vacationer's Christmas morning is likely to start at a communal table in a Club Med -- or in Jamaica, at a resort such as Jamaica Jamaica.
At Christmastime this all-inclusive resort has red, white and green ice sculptures around its lobby water-volleyball pool, and there are poinsettias amid the palm trees. But no sleigh and reindeer here; Santa arrives by wind surfer and hands out, not candy canes, but coconut drops and local sweets called grater cakes.
The breakfast eggnog is laced with coconut milk as well as rum. The menu goes beyond bacon and eggs to codfish fritters called "stamp-and-go," salt mackerel with coconut milk and onions called "rundown" -- and ackee, that odd fruit that looks and tastes like scrambled eggs. The day passes with suntanning and snorkeling, boat races and cricket matches.
Christmas dinner is a buffet that doesn't stop at ham and turkey, but goes on to curried goat, the powerfully peppered grilled "jerk pork," breadfruit and boiled bananas. Buche de noel, plum pudding and mince pie are interspersed on the dessert table with Jamaica's rum-drenched black cake and sweet-potato pudding. But the drinking only starts with eggnog, and goes on to pina coladas, mango daiquiris and Red Stripe beer. This is Christmas to a calypso beat.
In the cities of Jamaica, however, the locals celebrate Christmas Eve with a very different tradition, the Grand Market: They go shopping. As soon as the workday ends and the sun goes down, a steady stream of vans descends on the downtown squares and a dozen or more revelers pour from each overstuffed car. All Christmas shopping begins and ends in that one frenzied evening. In Ocho Rios the lines form blocks-long to get into Sinclair's Bargain Center. Sidewalks are impassable from the crowds of families with children combed and braided and ruffled in their party clothes. The mood is less like an American shopping mall than like Times Square on New Year's Eve. It's a party, with firecrackers and singing. "Silent Night" throbs through the night in reggae rhythms.
The center of action is the outdoor market, its tightly packed rows of small stands lit only by candles. Thus the selling of nylon pinafores and polyester pantsuits looks romantic and mysterious. It looks festive, it sounds festive -- and it smells like a feast. The peppery fragrance of jerk chicken competes with the sweet aroma of cotton candy. A line forms in front of the bakery, and the waiting in line is eased with snacking on hot, pastry-wrapped Jamaican meat patties. The eating is of course interspersed with drinking, rum vying with the tart and ultrasweet soft drink made from the scarlet sorrel flowers that bloom just in time for Christmas. And the spending of money competes with the winning and losing of money as gamblers hover around small tables at the corners of the market.
Christmas Day is in contrast pretty quiet; in fact, some say it is an anticlimax. Jamaica's Sunday Gleaner newspaper last year complained that in Montego Bay the citizenry found "very little to amuse them," not much more than a merry-go-round behind the old town hall, with long lines waiting for a turn. The children were so bored that they crowded to gambling tables where they were excited by odds of six to one. An editorial bemoaned the replacement of home-cured hams and fruit cakes with commercially manufactured foods, and insisted that after Christmas Eve's shopping the public couldn't possibly have the energy to be merry.
The Grand Market does give me an idea, though. How nice it would be to serve grilled chicken and cotton candy to the accompaniment of reggae music at our Grand Un-Market, when we line up in our department stores for the returning of the gifts on Dec. 26. Candlelight, too, might extend our merriment one more day.
Tabletalk Any grandmother I know would take it as an insult, this new chicken bouillon powder called Grandma Anna's Jewish Penicillin. The first ingredient is sugar, the second salt, followed immediately by MSG. And chicken isn't mentioned at all among the ingredients; the chicken-yellow tint is added by Yellow No. 5 food coloring, to which some people are allergic. The only thing this chicken soup could cure is a taste for chicken soup.
In the spirit of detente, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's ice-cream companies have come to an agreement -- preceded by a court injunction against Haagen Dazs -- that Haagen Dazs will refrain from coercing distributors to choose only one of the brands of ice cream, rather than carrying them both. C'mon, guys, could you have doubted we American munchers have room in our hearts and stomachs for both of you?
JAMAICA STAMP-AND-GO (Codfish Fritters) (8 appetizer servings)
1/3 pound dried salt cod
1 clove garlic
1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot chili pepper, minced
Oil for frying
Soak salt cod overnight in water to cover, then boil for 15 minutes, drain and shred the fish. Chop the onion, garlic, scallions and tomato very fine. Put shredded cod in a bowl, add flour and enough cold water to make a thin batter similar to that of pancakes. Stir until smooth and add onion, garlic, scallions, tomatoes, paprika and hot pepper to taste.
Heat a thin layer of oil in a skillet, spoon in the batter to form pancakes and, using a knife, spread each thin. Fry, turning once, until golden brown and crisp on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Keep fritters warm in a low oven as you cook the rest of the batter. Serve hot as an appetizer.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group