Archives For Christmas

Christmas Treats

December 24, 2017 — Leave a comment

For many years my treat at this time of year was The Nutcracker, either performed by whoever my daughter was dancing with, and latterly, The Houston Ballet. This Christmas, I’m on St Croix and despite living opposite a dance studio, Tchaikovsky’s ballet is not on the dance card. And so I’ve found something else to satisfy my cultural thirst – and not just one performance.

There’s something about Sundays and music that goes together – whether it’s a church organ or, as has been my pleasure a couple of times lately, an afternoon of Colombian Cumbia, Brazilian Choro (street music), jazz compositions from the greats and original pieces inspired oftentimes by this remarkable music duo’s mode of transport. Their 43’ sloop – S/V Catherine.

This treat has been on offer for the last month at the Caribbean Museum of Culture and Arts in Frederiksted on the western end of St Croix. The venue is perfect for an afternoon of sometimes fierce, sometimes haunting, sometimes lyrical music – none of which it is possible to sit through without moving, at the very least, your toes. The music adds another layer to this elegant building exuding history through the thick walls which surround an inner courtyard. Art covers the walls of the upstairs gallery – at the moment a fascinating exhibition celebrating gay pride.

Through the open windows the hulking outline of the cruise ship housing FEMA, Red Cross officials and others who have responded to the call of St Croix’s need after the devastation of Hurricanes IrMaria, sits at the end of Frederiksted pier. Palm fronds, slowly straightening and growing back, sway in time to the music it seems, with the occasional bird flitting by as if curious to hear the freely floating melodies.

The current artists-in residence at CMCA are a husband and wife team, who play the piano until the historic walls positively quake, and who make a flute sing so sweetly as to bring tears. I believe their daughters are also musically-minded but I haven’t heard them perform yet. They are sometimes joined by local musicians – this last week by Junie Bomba on the conga drums.

Jarad and Christel Astin, aka Stell & Snuggs, met at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts over twenty years ago and, until relatively recently, followed individual musical careers. Their life changed, dramatically, just as so many Virgin Islander’s lives have changed recently – due to mother nature. It was Hurricane Sandy who tore into the fabric of their existence but rather than bemoaning their misfortune, this intrepid couple turned their back on conformity and began their nomadic lives, making music wherever they happen to moor.

Their daughters are homeschooled afloat – and I’d hazard a guess, are getting an education that will stand them in wonderful stead. Resilience and adaptability being two traits that will get them through any number of adventures as they find their own feet, or maybe fins.

As I watched Jarad, so at one with the grand piano in the upstairs gallery, his fingers skimming, pounding or fluttering along the keys, I wondered whether he missed having access to such an instrument as he sails from gig to gig. And I would think traveling with an accordion has issues all of their own. Christel’s work tools would seem far more portable – a flute, a ukulele and her voice.

What did traveling minstrels do before iPads? A quick swipe and notes appeared – maybe Wayne Shorter’s Little Waltz – slow and haunting, or a lively salsa straight from Santiago de Cuba. “Music,” Jarad said when describing the Afro-Caribbean beat, “ which all came out of a trip taken on a boat that they didn’t want to take.”

The power might have fluctuated and then gone off but there was no fluctuation in the power of the music. An original composition, Love Piece, soared up then thundered down – perhaps a description of a brief but intense affair or maybe a long marriage.

Jarad’s comments between pieces continued to be thought provoking – “Jazz brings people together from all over the world, regardless of colour or race or creed” – if at times as odds with his slightly rakish look of shaggy hair cut and porkpie hat!

The final composition was another original written as he sailed across that notoriously rough stretch water along the west coast of France, without Christel. Called Sans Romance de Bay de Biscay, it brought to mind loneliness and longing, before moving into a lilting crescendo as presumably he neared home.

The Astins are not only talented musicians but actively involved in encouraging youth to express themselves through music. I truly hope they continue to moor up at St Croix both for what they can teach and for the pleasure they bring.

I might not have listened to Tchaikovsky or watched The Nutcracker this Christmas but I certainly didn’t miss out on a cultural musical tour.
Merry Christmas, and may 2018 bring magic and treats to you and yours, in all its forms!

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Christmas Winds!

December 21, 2016 — 11 Comments

The Christmas winds, barreling east from Africa, are bringing squalls and as I dodge great splodges of rain I hope for calmer weather when Jake’s Place fills with visitors in a few days. Christmas in the Caribbean sounds exotic, and much of it is, but whilst we don’t have to worry about hurricanes, or polar vortexes, at this time of year, we do want sunshine for friends who have chosen to share the festivities with us.

The last few days have been spent gussying the house up, making the tree and reminiscing as I hang ornaments reminding me of past Christmases. Camels, monkeys and elephants share branch space with more traditional baubles.

Not having children present this year, I have not put out the elf on whose blackboard the days are marked down until Santa magically appears. Not down the chimney but instead, as I explained to my grandchildren last year, on top of the gallery where he ties the reindeer to the defunct satellite dish so they don’t blow away in the aforementioned winds. That jolly fellow in the red suit then shimmies down and clambers in the open window to deposits his goodies. Spending just enough time to swig the rum, this is the Caribbean afterall, munch a mince pie, of course remembering to take the carrots aloft for the patiently waiting Rudolph and his cohorts.

As I listen to carols and sip sherry – another family tradition – I think that Christmas can be a strangely complicated time for many of us. Whether home or abroad. A nostalgic time. A time when thoughts drift back to childhood, either our own or our children’s. And when those children are grown and not sharing the season with us, whether due to distance, work or commitments to others, it is easy to fall into a malaise longing for things past.

A sentimental time – perhaps especially for those not spending it in their home country for the first time. The unfamiliar jostling the familiar. Perhaps the first warm Christmas, or conversely the first laden with snow – finally one that fits cards showing winterscapes with Breughel-like scenes.

Nostalgia though can be confused with homesickness. I think the trick to Christmas either spent abroad or away from home for the first time, for whatever reason, is to start new traditions. – whether we are the ones away or the ones still at home. Create new norms to each new situation. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the old forever, it just requires a little adaptability. A different take on a familiar event. Watching, sometimes from afar, grown children with their own family merging traditions as well as forging new ones, gives me real joy.

More often than not, I ‘dress’ the house alone now, so when my husband or guests arrive on island all is ready, and as I listen to my favourite carolers I feel a sense of freedom. I have no one to answer too, to cajole into helping me. No eye-rolling teenager, or spouse grumpy because the lights wont work.

Nonetheless, there is a poignancy to the preparations. We relocated internationally a number of times when our children were young, with each place requiring slight adaptations, and of course assurances Santa would find them in their new abode – whether he had to row along a klong, find us in a high-rise or squeeze down a chimney. Memories pop up with each ornament. The elephant decorations came from Thailand, the monkeys from West Africa. The slightly wonky Santa face was the first decoration my son made, oh so many years ago. It has travelled many miles.

When both my grown children were with us last year, with their respective partners and our grandchildren, we reverted to their childhood traditions – though with Mimosas instead of OJ. My daughter took her usual position at the tree doling out presents. My son pretended indifference, except when watching his nieces, but actually enjoyed the roles into which we all naturally fell.

This year will be different again. And that, to me, is what makes Christmas such fun. Old and new customs melding to add to the memories – the odd culinary disaster becoming ever enlarged as it is recounted year after year.

So for those having a different kind of Christmas this year, remember wherever you are is home for the time being, and revel in the newness rather than succumbing to saccharine sentimentality. Santa will find you.

And now I must go and rehang the camel – those darn Trade Winds! May your day be filled with warmth of both hearth and heart as you recall old memories and create new ones.

Merry Christmas!

The silence woke Holly. The rhythmic creak of the anchor chain and slap of water hitting the hull had stopped. So too the groaning sheets interspersed with whistling, like Nonna’s kettle, as wind had whipped through the stays and the sea had spumed. Her initial delight on being aboard had lessened with each shriek of the storm buffeting the yacht – despite the cheerful banter over gin rummy and whisky.

Tying a batik sarong Holly tiptoed up on deck. A ribbon of palest pink tickled the horizon and she knew the drenched decks and sails would soon dry in the rapidly rising sun. Hearing no sound from either Simon or Reed’s cabin, she climbed down to the transom and stripping, dived into the sparkling Caribbean. Surfacing, she gasped. She hadn’t expected the chill. It felt more like her childhood dash into the waters off Lyme Regis.

Shards of silver shimmered as her naked body rippled the turquoise sea in ever-widening circles. Tiny fish feathered her legs as they darted first one way and then the other in uncertainty until, as one, they flashed away. Looking down into the clear waters Holly wondered what was chasing them. Barracuda maybe. She shivered. It was cold. Kicking, she swam strongly, relishing the swish of water over her head, and glad she’d had her long hair cut before she’d left London. New life. New style.

Puffing, she floated a while, her hands idling the water. The beach, like snow from this distance, invited her to make sand angels. The white strip lined by palms, the fronds rustling gently after their frenetic movements of the previous evening. She could just make out what looked like ruins at the top of the hill behind the beach. An old sugar mill she guessed. She shouldn’t have been so hasty – she’d like to walk along the beach but doubted her nakedness would be appreciated by those on other yachts anchored nearby, and who might also be early risers.

“Holly!”

She waved. Even from this distance Simon was tall. Beckoning her back, she saw Reed join her brother on deck. Almost the same height but not living up to his name – Reed was a sturdy man. A rugby player to her brother’s cricket. They had met at university and been fast friends ever since. After one marriage and divorce, and one near miss, they’d pooled their resources and, leaving the dank European winters behind, had set sail for warmer climes on their 45’ sloop, Henrietta. The freedom seemed to have had a positive effect on their finances too – freelance marketing and writing brought in more than enough and, whilst Holly knew they had both had flings, the men were happy with their lives. How would they find life with her aboard for the next few months?

Until she could face the Highbury Fields flat again. Until she could face London again. No Malcolm. No Nonna. Holly couldn’t tell whether it was tears or seawater making her eyes smart. Couldn’t tell whether it was the thought of her lover in someone else’s bed or her dead grandmother which made her chest constrict.

“Holly!” Simon’s deep voice skimmed over the shimmering water again. “Breakfast.”

Powering back to the yacht, she remembered her nakedness.

“Go below, both of you!” she called, hearing her brother’s laughter. Clambering up the ladder, she retied the sarong and followed the smell of bacon into the galley.

“Bacon butties on deck,” Reed said, turning from the hob with a grin. “Up you go. You earn your keep from tomorrow.”

The sun dried her corn-coloured hair into loose curls, softening her angular face and grey eyes. She sighed. There were worse places to be. Smiling, she heard Nonna’s favourite carol drifting up from the saloon – Bing Crosby singing The Little Drummer Boy. Turning she saw Simon carrying a tray set with a guavaberry branch in an empty wine bottle, tiny baubles glinting above a miniature reindeer with a red bow and two small parcels wrapped in gold paper. Then Reed with glasses and champagne – both wearing board shorts, fur-trimmed Santa hats and tinseled sunglasses.

“Merry Christmas, Holly!” Simon said, kissing his sister.

“Happy Ho, Ho, Ho.” Reed filled the plastic flutes, bubbles joining the condensation as they spilled over. “Here’s to your first Christmas aboard!”