Yuletide in Jamaica glides in each December on what the locals call the Christmas Breeze, a slightly crisper air that tends to waft through the island this time of year. The other seasonal harbinger is one common to most places: the sound of Christmas songs on the radio. Except that Christmas music in Jamaica is, well, uniquely Jamaican. Traditional carols get a reggae underpinning while lyrics about sunshine and mango often substitute for the usual snow and holly. Back in the day, it was hardly a given that every Jamaican artist would record a Christmas song, unlike today. But several did–and they’re worth digging up.
During the first half of the 20th century there were many Christmas songs being recorded by calypsonians–which conceivably were enjoyed by Jamaicans at the time–but scant details exist about such Jamaican recordings (one known example is a frighteningly-rare mento 78 called “Jingle Bells Calypso” by Lord Lebby). This is noteworthy as calypso was not a music style indigenous to Jamaica, it came from Trinidad. In fact, many Jamaican mento artists became so frustrated trying to point out the difference between the two that they eventually gave in to being called calypso just to sell records and please tourists.
For the songs below, we travel back to 1962 – the year Jamaica gained its independence. This move toward independence, already under way in the late 1950s, coincided with a growing sense of national pride across the country. This was, in turn, triggering a musical shift, as American records (mostly R&B, some jazz) had dominated the sound systems and dances throughout the 50s. Meanwhile, records by Jamaican artists at the time were mostly just attempts to mimic a similar American sound. By the early 60s, however, sound system operators like Coxsone Dodd (that is, the men who owned the speakers, played the records and got paid the money for doing so) began to notice something: Increasingly, there were stronger reactions from crowds at the dance to records that featured not only elements of the island’s own musical forms, mento and ska, but vocals that sang in a native tongue about experiences familiar to Jamaicans. It was evident that this next generation of young, proud Jamaicans was ready to have a music to call their own–and Jamaica’s burgeoning domestic music industry was only too happy to oblige. Naturally, this extended to holiday songs too. And thus began a golden period for Jamaica’s distinctly homegrown Christmas catalog.
Download: Christmas Jambree :: A Vintage Jamaican Yuletide Mixtape (zipped folder)
Stokey Love is the founder of Soul Ghetto, a sound system he started in 1968 and ran for two decades. He remembers growing up in Kingston in the 50s and 60s, on its’ famed Orange Street. Nicknamed “Beat Street”, it was the cradle of ska, rocksteady and reggae in the 60s and 70s, lined with record shops owned by now-legendary producers like Coxsone, Sonia Pottinger and Bunny Lee.
“Christmas was BIG,” says Stokey, today a host on Kingston station Kool-FM. “When I was a yout’, Santa would travel down our road. A local department store used to sponsor it, and Santa would journey down the road–all the way down Orange Street to King Street where the store was located–in a float that was all done up like a sleigh with reindeer. It was a street parade! And we would go up and greet Santa, and he would throw out gifts to the crowd.”
It was a different time in Jamaica then and it’s a been a few decades since Santa last visited Orange Street. “It was something we would look forward to” he continues. “Because when you came from a poor background and your parents cannot buy you a gift, you go and see Santa, and he would give you a gift. I would love to see them bring back that street parade.”
Another strong tradition at the time was “Jonkunnu”, the noisy masquerade parade featuring music and dancers dressed in elaborate costumes that included characters like “Pitchy-patchy” and “Belly Woman”, as well as animals, policemen and always a devil. “Oh man, I would scream my head off!” Stokey laughs. “In my day I was so afraid of them–and they were out in numbers! When I was young? Jonkunnu all over the place! But the younger people are not interested in carrying on these traditions so much now.”
Recordings of Christmas music by Jamaican artists in the 60s and 70s would typically comprise established favorites or newly-penned songs that reflected the favored musical style at the time. The Wailers’ mid-60s cover of “White Christmas”, for example, is more akin to an American R&B/vocal group (these were pre-reggae days), while The Ethiopians’ “Ding Dong Bell”, released in 1968, rides along on an easy rocksteady beat.
Another common approach, used to this day, was adapting an already-popular instrumental (or “riddim”). See, for example, Half Pint’s “Christmas Vibes” which uses the familiar “Real Rock” riddim (used most famously on Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, later covered by The Clash), or original Skatalite Doreen Shaffer’s “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” (for which Coxsone re-purposes The Heptones’ “I Hold The Handle”).
All of which meant that, during the holidays, a soundman needn’t hesitate to drop a few festive numbers at the dance. “As long as people can shake to it,” says Stokey. “Jamaicans have rhythm, so we’ll dance to anything. For me, ‘Christmas Coming’ by Alton Ellis was always a good one to mix in with some rocksteady.” This particular highlight finds Ellis re-cutting a new, season-appropriate vocal for his hit “Sunday Coming” over an instrumental from Studio One house band The Soul Vendors, led by Jackie Mittoo. (It’s no coincidence that Studio One releases dominate the selection here; not only was it the most prolific label of the era but owner Coxsone Dodd was an astute businessman who knew his marketplace well.)
There were also, of course, the Jamaican-ized lyrical touches, which became more common over time. “Save a lickle chicken for Christmas,” urges Little John on his track “Save a Little For Christmas” (“You see, you have turkey in America,” explains Stokey, “we have chicken!”). And in a Christmas song that could only have come out of Jamaica, “Santa Ketch Up Eena Mango Tree” finds the song’s authors, sisters Pam Smith and Faith D’Aguilar, going out to search for Santa when he fails to show up with their presents–only to find him stuck in a fruit tree. “Why Santa always coming down a chimney? We don’t have chimneys in Jamaica!” Faith would later explain. “So we decided it should be a mango tree instead.”
Anyone who has listened to much reggae, especially from the 70s heyday of roots and consciousness, could be forgiven for thinking Jamaica is heavily Rastafarian. In which case, you might also wonder why Rastas were singing Christmas songs. The island today is around 70% Christian (centuries of Spanish and British rule, remember) with Rastafari, perhaps surprisingly, making up less than 2% of the population (though, this number would have been higher in the 70s). Further, when artists like Bob Marley and Cornel Campbell recorded their Christmas tunes, it was prior to their embrace of Rastafari. Now, this doesn’t mean Rastas would never record a Christmas track. Jacob Miller (vocalist for Inner Circle before his passing in 1980), one of the more ardent dreads in the game in the 1970s, recorded an entire album called ‘Natty Christmas’ [we haven’t featured it here but it’s easily found on any streaming service nowadays]. As the London-based producer and selector Wrong Tom points out, “Reggae was never afraid to cash in on a fad or gimmick, remember.”
Producer Joe Gibbs knew this all to well. Seemingly taking his inspiration from Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You LP, he assembled artists from his stable for the album ‘Joe Gibbs Family Wish You a Merry Rockers Christmas’, released in 1979. It’s remarkable that it took so long for a Jamaican label to do this–and, among others, Coxsone Dodd was quick to follow suit with the Studio One LP Sir Coxsone’s Family Album Christmas Stylee – but then, Jamaica was always a singles market. When albums started being recorded (or, oftentimes, compiled from singles) in the late 60s/early 70s, it was mainly because of demand from England and the export market. Still, the Gibbs album remains a milestone of sorts.
“That still gets played in Jamaica every year” confirms Stokey. “Joe Gibbs led the way in a lot of ways, and that album is still one of the most popular ones.” Maybe it was inevitable (since it was beginning to happen everywhere else, too) but Gibbs’ album did signal a new era in which it became common for Jamaican artists of every stripe (even the hardest of dancehall artists like Elephant Man and Vybez Kartel) to record Christmas songs.
More so than even Christmas day itself, Jamaicans look forward to Christmas Eve. This is the time of “Grand Market”, when literally everyone goes out to shop and revel late into the night. Stores remain open until the early hours of morning, vendors lay their wares out on streets and sidewalks, and parents let their children buy something special. There is an energy in the air; food carts sizzle with the smell of jerk meat, roasted nuts and sweets. And, of course, there is music.
You can get a sense of this energy in the excerpt from Michael Campbell (aka Mikey Dread)’s radio broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1978 with its’ recurring toast of “Christmaaaaaas!”
Once Christmas Day rolls around the island is much quieter. Similar to American Thanksgiving, it’s a day spent with family and friends enjoying a big dinner. This special meal might typically include baked ham, gungo peas an’ rice (the special gungo peas come into season just in time for Christmas), Christmas cake and a drink made from sorrell that is steeped in spice (similar to a mulled wine) and usually mixed with rum. “Always add white rum,” smiles Stokey.
“Jamaicans love to celebrate,” he concludes. “And they love Christmas.”
Indeed, it’s such a special time on the island that even devout Rastas have been known to forego their vegetarian diet for the day in order to enjoy a little bit of Christmas ham. In the words of Alton Ellis: Praise Jah, it’s Christmas. words / dev sherlock
1 The Ethiopians – Ding Dong Bell
2 Alton Ellis – Christmas Coming
3 The Kingstonians – Merry Merry Christmas
4 Rupie Edwards – Christmas Parade
5 Doreen Shaffer – Wishing You a Merry Christmas
6 Joe Gibbs Ultra Sound – Rock It For Christmas
7 Owen Gray – Collins Greetings
8 Byron Lee & The Dragonaires – Winter Wonderland Reggay
9 Little John – Save a Little For Christmas
10 Heptones – Christmas Is Here
11 Palemina & Faith D’Aguilar – Santa Ketch Up Eena Mango Tree
12 Alton Ellis & The Lipsticks – Merry Merry Christmas
13 The Cimarons – Holy Christmas
14 Don Cornel (aka Cornel Campbell) & The Eternals – Christmas Joy
15 Sugar Minott – Christmas Jambree
16 Jackie Mittoo – Joy Joy
17 Mikey Dread – JBC Radio broadcast, Christmas Eve 1978
18 Half Pint – Christmas Vibes
19 The Maytals – Happy Christmas (The Christmas Song)
20 Al & The Vibrators – Merry Christmas
21 Premo & Joe – Peace on Earth
22 Silvertones – Bling Bling Christmas
23 The Wailers – White Christmas
24 The Cables – Christmas Is Not Just a Holiday
25 Joe Gibbs Family (feat/ Beres Hammond) – Winter Wonderland
26 Lee Scratch Perry & Sandra Robinson – Merry Christmas Happy New Year
27 Alton Ellis – Praise Jah, It’s Christmas
28 Gaylads – Christmas