My family’s roots are in St. Kitts, the larger of two islands in the Caribbean country of St. Kitts and Nevis. In recent years, this nation, with its population of just over 50,000, is often teeming with tourists who pour off cruise ships and planes, eager to experience the islands’ warmth and hospitality. When I was growing up, however, the country was a tiny dot on the world map, unknown to many outside the Caribbean.
As a Canadian-born child, my initial impressions of St. Kitts were largely formed by my parents, who immigrated to Canada as young adults. Through stories, food and music, they shared their love of the island, rooting us in our history and culture as Afro-Caribbean people.
When I was about eight, my family prepared to go to St. Kitts for a few weeks over the Christmas season. I was excited to finally see the place I had heard so much about and that had been such an integral part of my upbringing. (My first trip there happened when I was too young to remember it.) But questions swirled around in my mind: What would a tropical Christmas feel like? With no snow, how would Santa arrive on his sleigh? With no chimneys, how would Santa come into the house to give away presents? With no spruce or pines, what would we use for our Christmas tree?
I also had questions about church at Christmastime. In Canada, we went to a service late on Christmas Eve and woke up on Christmas Day to a time of gift-giving and celebration. But in St. Kitts, our local Methodist church held Christmas Day services at 5 a.m. My young mind didn’t understand why this was necessary.
Waking up early made me cranky. Why couldn’t we go to church later in the morning? We would then have time to open presents (a priority for my eight-year-old self) and could worship at a more leisurely hour. Instead, we had to wake up in complete darkness, long before the sun peeked over the horizon. I remember how I sat through the service bleary-eyed and weary, wishing I could still be snug in my bed.
When I asked people why church was held so early in the morning, the most common response was, “That’s just when we go to church on Christmas.” I was a little annoyed at this strange and seemingly arbitrary time for gathering.
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Outside of that service, the Christmas season that year was a beautiful celebration with my large family, complete with feasting, folklore, street festivals, cultural traditions, carnival revelry, trips to the beach, and lots of love and laughter. I returned to winter in Canada with my heart full.
Many years later, I went back to St. Kitts for Christmas as an adult. I had long outgrown my questions about Santa, but I still wondered about the church service and why it continued to be at 5 a.m. A pastor of one of the Methodist churches finally answered this question for me. And the truth simultaneously shocked and inspired me.
People gather for worship in many churches in St. Kitts (and across the Caribbean) to pay homage to the past. In the days when Black people were still enslaved on the island, their only option for a Christmas service was to go to church at that early hour. This would give them enough time to get back home and prepare the house and food so their white enslavers could go to church, too. But it was not a simple act, the pastor told me: gathering for worship was actually illegal. People would walk to church in the protective cloak of darkness, knowing that this could result in sanctions against them. By keeping the early worship time on Christmas even now, nearly two centuries after slavery was outlawed on the island, we honour the courage of our enslaved ancestors and give thanks for our freedom in the present.
It is an important act of remembrance. It is a reminder that Christians owned slaves and were complicit in the heinous practice of slavery. It is a call to resist injustice.
For me, finally having my “why” question answered brought about a transformation of my mind and soul — a shift from resentment to rootedness. I no longer view the pre-dawn service as something to be endured. Rather, it has become a powerful experience that connects me to my ancestors and deepens my resolve to fight for justice.
On Christmas morning, when people are usually filled with joy at Jesus’ birth, I also reflect on enslavement, colonialism and the legacy of anti-Black racism that persists today. Even while we celebrate the newborn Jesus, we can also celebrate his life as an adult and how he resisted and dismantled systems of oppression. I’m grateful for this change in mindset — a moment of true awakening.
This essay first appeared in Broadview’s December 2020 issue with the title “Rooted in ritual.”
Adele Halliday works at the United Church’s national office in Toronto.
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