Christmas In Jérémie
Jean-Marie Florestal


When Northerners extol their wonderful memories of a "white" Christmas, I can't help wondering how Christmas time could be more fun than the one we enjoyed, during the 60's, in Jeremie, Haiti. Children and adults in my neighborhood, alike, would have it no other way. For Christmas season was a unique period during the year. It was the only time when children could act and feel like adults, while having an endless streak of having fun for many consecutive days and nights. All of that happened with the cooperation of a weather that seemed always perfect. The temperature was almost always in the 70's and 80's and I cannot remember a Christmas Eve with rain.

Here is a more detailed account of my memories of "Christmas in Jeremie":

1. Christmas Season

Unlike in America, when it seems the holiday season starts after Thanksgiving, during the 60's in Jeremie, there was no fixed date. For us, the season started when the first Christmas carols hit the radio waves. The starting date's variance, from year to year, could range from a few days to weeks. It all depended on the radio stations' disc jockeys. The season ended on a day called "Les Rois" (" Kings' Day") that usually falls on the first Sunday after January 2, called "Jour des Aieux " ("Forefathers' Day").

2. Christmas Tree

Forget about reusable and whole Christmas trees. Pine trees in Jeremie were too old, too tall and too big to fit in a house. A freshly cut branch of an old pine tree, about eight feet tall, was all needed to extract smiles from children's faces. One old tree can supply branches to no less than ten families with the added advantage of supplying again the same number, if not more, in future years. Early cutting was essential. Children prided themselves on bringing home the branch with the most dense pine leaves. All of that was free. The only pine trees in town, as far as I can remember, could be found on the general hospital ground, "Hopital St. Antoine." The hospital administration allowed families, who wanted it, one branch each in an unplanned fashion. Hey! This is Haiti!

A decently decorated Christmas tree in our neighborhood was not worth its name, unless a sizable nativity scene was added to its base. The largest scene could be up to five feet tall, five feet wide and occupied the whole corner of a living room. Obviously none of the residential nativity scenes could beat the prized one at the main town church, which was three to four times bigger than the average one in a home. The scene reproduced the birth of Christ with the cave manger, the hays, and sculptured stable animals, wise kings, Mary, Joseph, the little baby and the crib. Since we are talking about 1960's in Jeremie, a town that was at least half a century behind Port-au-Prince in modern development, the people had to be creative. We built the nativity scenes by folding and wrinkling brown wrapping paper to look like a cave in a rock mountain. Then we sprinkled it with various colors of paint and set it over carton boxes to reproduce the manger. Once the manger is set, we added the sculptured people and animals that are bought at stores, and attached a bright star on top of the manger. The rest of the tree was no different than today's Christmas tree, except for the lack of snowflakes.

3. Christmas Cards

Christmas cards, which are sent by mid December, were also homemade. They were watercolor drawings on cut stencil folded in two to fit in a greeting card envelope. The inside holiday greeting is left to the writer to complete. Most of the drawings represented nativity scenes or Haitian landscape designed by the more talented of the neighborhood teenagers. Being a so-called Christmas card designer was a very rewarding occupation for a youngster. Although the cards were sold at about 50 centimes a piece, a U.S. dime, the season revenue could cover the cost of tickets to movie theaters for several days, extra toys and other children's fancies. As an added benefit, youngsters viewed the Christmas cards designers as role models and local heroes.

4. "Pete Klorat"

While listening to Christmas carols being played on radio and preparing for Christmas festivities were a lot fun, none of them equated the joy of "pete Klorat," a kind of firework. Mind you, we also lit "allumettes bengal," firecrackers, we liked to toss in the air. But that was only the grandchild of "Klorat." "Pete Klorat" was the act of striking a powder that generates a noise similar to that of a bomb, thunder or gun shot. By the way, when we were kids in Jeremie, the only place we heard bomb noise was in the movies since there were no local fireworks displays. Kids, mostly boys, were granted some kind of a tacit license to produce, without the risk of being punished, those loud noises for days and evenings before and after Christmas. Those loud noises could be heard, sometimes, as far as one mile away. Within 15 feet of an explosion, the noise was deafening followed by the smoke and smell of gunpowder.

One tablespoon of "Klorat" was sold in a folded paper bag, in pharmacies, for a U.S. dime. The powder had a yellowish color with sparse white grains. To keep control over the intensity of the explosion, most of the times we bought the chemical compounds separately and mixed them ourselves. Only two widely available chemical compounds were needed to mix a "Klorat." They are "potasse" and "soufre," that I think are potassium chlorate and a sulfur compound. "Potasse" was whitish and "soufre" was a yellowy lemon type. Once mixed, the yellow got lighter. It seemed to us at the time, that the greater the ratio of "potasse" over "soufre," the louder and more powerful the mixture. I now presume that the name "Klorat" came from the potassium chlorate component of the chemical mixture.

There were two ways to explode a Klorat. One was by striking it under your shoes, the other was by preparing what we called a bomb that we tossed in the air which exploded on falling when making contact with hard ground. Even though we called it a bomb, it was not known in Jeremie to have harmed anyone by accident. The name referred more to the explosion and noise made. Besides a black crater on the point of contact, no larger than the head of the screw that packs the powder, there were no damage to property. I cannot remember any instance or report of people being injured by Klorat. The average explosion was ignited under one shoe as a reaction to friction. One kid would look for a flat surface on a cement or concrete floor. Put about half of a teaspoon of Klorat powder and laid on it a flat beach pebble of two to four inches of diameter and less than one inch high. Then, the kid would stand on it with his left heel and strike it by hitting the left heel with the right one. The result was a blue spark, and n oise that can be heard up to approximately one hundred yards away, followed by the usual smoke and gunpowder smell. During the strike, the powder burned producing the spark of blue flame. Because of the risk of getting burnt, we mostly stroke it with leather shoes on, although some of us dared striking it barefoot. One day, I was wearing a "boyo Fabnac," strapped shoes made of rubber, when I stroke one teaspoon content of Klorat. After the spark, my shoes caught on fire. There was no time to unfasten the open back strap of the shoes. I had to rush to the sides of the road and soaked my foot in the running drainage water of the streets, called "rigole" in Creole. No time to call 911 and the firemen either. These are for futuristic time that has not reached my hometown yet.

The other way to explode a Klorat was by making a "bomb," which was the favorite way of the older kids, the teenagers. The bomb was made by selecting a piece of iron pipe of about six inches long and welding one end of it to form a container. Then the pipe was filled with two to three teaspoons of Klorat powder which was tightly packed at the other end by a large flat head screw, as wide as the diameter of the iron pipe. The head of the screw was attached to a wire cable that is tied to the body of the pipe, to prevent spilling of the powder as it was tossed. Then, we tied chicken or turkey feathers around the welded end of the pipe so the fall to the ground will be on the screw head. Once completed, the bomb was tossed up to 20 feet in the air in a direction that it would fall on a hard surface, such as concrete or asphalt. On ground impact, it would explode, producing noise, and projecting the empty pipe 20 to 50 feet back in the air, depending on its size. By the way, the one doing the tossing ran for cove r behind a tree, while the bomb was in the air, to avoid being on its way when the projectile shot up back after impact. It was not unusual that a bomb splintered the pipe on impact sending two to three pieces in different directions, leaving a small black crater of one to three inches in diameter in the cemented or asphalt ground or wall. This kind was usually heard up to one mile away and became everyone subject of conversation the following morning.

After 1965, Francois Duvalier perceived potential destabilization threats by "Klorat" to his government, and banned its use ever since

5. Christmas Eve

This was the day when most of the rules for children were relaxed. The lack of specific application of rules made us fee like adults. All houses in the neighborhood were open with all lights on until about three o'clock in the morning. There was no curfew time, as long as we showed up to church for midnight mass. We went out in the neighborhood by groups, with the parents not necessarily knowing exactly where we were. The older kids were in charge. Kids, regardless of age, were allowed, on Christmas Eve, to drink some "anisette" The latter is a mild alcoholic beverage prepared by soaking "anis" leaves into brut rum and sweetened with sugar. The sweet taste made it attractive to us. I must add something here for those who did not know traffic life in Jeremie in the 60's. There were few cars, the roads were short, thus limiting car speed, and car accidents were news and rarely fatal, unless it was a pedestrian hit. As kids, we did not care that much for the alcohol taste. In fact, we hated it. But drinking "ani s" was an adult act we were not allowed to do on any other day. And we loved acting as adults. At midnight, we all went to mass to the main church. Despite the excitement of midnight mass, it was not unusual to survive the service without a ten-minute doze off. After mass, by one o'clock, we all went back home to enjoy the meals of the "reveillon," something like a wake. That meal is usually rice and beans with fried chicken soaked in a mild sauce. The table manners for this two o'clock meal were also relaxed. It was not necessary to eat it sitting at the dinner table, and we did not to worry about where our elbows were nor how full were our mouths while talking, etc. When you combined all of that with the excitement of expecting presents, "Ti Jesus," from "Papa Noel," Santa Claus, the following morning, we had a night we could not forget. On Christmas day, we got up early with our eyes barely open, due to lack of sleep, and went checking on the toys left by Papa Noel. The rest of Christmas Day was spent play ing with the new toys and trying each other's.


6. End of the Holiday Season

The period between Christmas day and Independence Day, January 1, was spent playing with our toys, exploding Klorat and enjoying the holiday vacation. Students in Haiti had a Christmas break which ran approximately two weeks, from Christmas week to the "Kings Day " Sunday ("Les Rois.") On "Les Rois," the whole family gathered at one member's home and feasted over barbecued goat, fried plantains, rice and beans. We socialized and played games while taking down the Christmas trees. Most kids related their most exciting stories of the Christmas season while expressing dread going to school the following day. We did not miss the absence of a White Christmas. I guess, Northerners did not miss our clear skies and temperature in the 70's either.


Copyright © 1998 Jean-Marie Florestal - Sonje series by Windows on Haiti