Carnival at Christmas in St. Kitts

Mediaeval strolling mummers, French quadrilles and African rhythms…Simon Lee encounters the unique cultural traditions of St Kitts

  • String bands define the Christmas Sports. Photograph by Richard Lyder
  • The Bull has been known to run down policewomen who inadvertently cross his path. Photograph by Richard Lyder
  • The peacock feathers which adorn the headdresses of the Masquerade troupe are symbolic conduits to the spirit world. Photograph by Richard Lyder

For many visitors carnival is synonymous with the Caribbean, and while Trinidad, to the south, may lay claim to the mother of all carnivals, St Kitts can justifiably claim historical precedence and a unique time frame for its own festival. The Christmas Sports, as they are known locally, begin on Boxing Day and culminate with the carnival of New Year’s Day.

Unlike islands with a French Creole or Roman Catholic heritage, where carnival is tagged to Lent, and the climax of the season falls on Shrove Tuesday (Trinidad, Dominica) or even Ash Wednesday itself (Martinique), St Kitts, as the earliest English settlement in the Caribbean, has preserved its Christmas Sports. The sports, even in their postmodern form, represent what must be some of the oldest examples of creolisation –the meeting and transformation of diverse cultural influences to create new forms – in the region.

The settlers who arrived in 1623 from the rural area of East Anglia brought country performance and festival traditions with them which had originated in the Middle Ages. The strolling mummers of mediaeval England became creolised “Mummies”, performing dramatic pieces lasting four hours, which up to the turn of the twentieth century dominated Christmas Sports. These include St George and the Turk, a mumming play well-known in nineteenth-century Britain, which is still performed in abbreviated form. Other long dramatic pieces the Mummies used to perform were David and Goliath, based on the biblical story, and Giant Dispear (despair), with characters and speeches taken from John Bunyan’s famous moral allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. Other, more secular pieces included Shakespeare Lesson, with speeches from Richard III and Julius Caesar.

From a performance perspective, the elements which define the Christmas Sports are African-derived: the costuming, dancing, and accompanying music, provided by the Big Drum ensemble, or string and scratch bands. These aspects were most likely introduced during the eighteenth century by an influx of Yoruba slaves from the war-ravaged Oyo kingdom of west Africa, who brought their ancestor worship with them. The peacock feathers which adorn the headdresses of the ever-popular Masquerade troupe and the mirrors sewn into costumes are symbolic conduits to the spirit world in Yoruba worship. Devotees of the Yoruba thunder god Shango performed with his dance wand or thunder axe, which may well be the precursor of the Masquerade’s tomahawk, invoking him with music and dance.

The creolisation process is also apparent in the series of dances performed by the Masquerade troupe. There are references to European dance forms like the quadrille, jig (possibly from the French gigue) fine, and waltz, which probably date from the time of French governor Lonvilliers de Poincy (1639 – 60), whose fabulous estate at Fountain, above Basseterre, was said to have outshone the palace at Versailles.

But the dance most spectators wait for is the Wild Mas, which follows the traditional African call-and-response form. The captain initiates a series of calls and responses with his troupe, beginning: “Tear the Indians!” met with “Tear the Cap!” A command, “Bram back ateddy music!” alerts the musicians and at the following order, “Take your hawks and go wild Indian!” the troupe moves in a circle, pushing back spectators. At the captain’s call “Una man paisa!” (pass money), the troupe dances in a circle, hands in air.

At this point spectators throw coins into the circle and the tempo changes. The dancers now step up several gears, grabbing tomahawks and spinning before lowering themselves into the limbo position to collect coins, and then rise to put their headdresses together as one and throw their tomahawks skyward. This limbo position has both African and Creole roots, symbolising resistance to the oppression of slavery – downpressed but remaining on one’s feet.

Next in the repertoire, the jig and boillola (with the interlude of a more sedate waltz) feature the acrobatics of dancing with the right foot hooked behind left calf, and climax in the boillola, with dancers leaning back, hands raised to the sky.

The Moko Jumbie is another African-derived Christmas Sport, which is now enjoying a revival and attracting female as well as male performers. With a long tradition in the community of Sandy Point, these stilt-walkers are familiar in Yoruba fertility and village-cleansing rituals, as representatives of the dead, chasing out evil and providing protection.

Another troupe with probable European roots is the Clowns, whose flowing costume is a variation on that of the court jester. Like the Actors from the village of St Peter’s, who combine acrobatics with such feats of strength as breaking a boulder laid on a man’s stomach, the origins of the Clowns are thought to lie in the entertainments staged by de Poincy at his Fountain estate.

A more recent and highly entertaining piece of street theatre is The Bull Play, which may have originated in a 1920 comic strip, based on a real-life incident at the Belmont Estate. The local white owner, Arthur Davis, had bought a stud bull, which quickly developed some ferocious tendencies. Attempting to gore a herdsman, the bull was stabbed and only saved by the timely arrival of a vet. The play, with its cast of bull, Arthur Davis, Sweetie, Oak, Sifter, Dr Pick-Me-Heel, Backanash the Dog, and Police Sergeant, is performed to the accompaniment of tambourine, chopping reel, bar-horn, triangle, shackpan and bamboo fife. Players carry a “hunter”, or plaited whip, an accessory still favoured by many other participants in the Christmas Sports and an obvious reference to slavery days. In his wire-mesh mask mounted with horns and red costume, tail waving with rapacious intent, the Bull has been known to run down policewomen who inadvertently cross his path.

Although Trinidad’s Carnival has exerted an influence, leading to the formalisation of a national carnival in 1971, since 1995 the Christmas Sports have been incorporated into this framework.

The Big Drum ensemble is another outstanding example of creolisation. The banning of African cultural expressions, especially the drum, by British colonial authorities led to the adoption of the European-style “big”, or bass drum, kettle (snare) drum and bamboo fifes. All figured prominently in British military marching bands, but were used by Afro-Creole musicians to produce the African polyrhythms which punctuate the dramas of the Christmas sports.

The string or scratch bands which accompany street performances and dances emerged in the 1920s, retaining the characteristic fife augmented with guitars, cuatro, mandolin, banjo, triangle, guiro (scraper) and the baha (long boom pipe). While older troupes like the Masquerade perform to the Big Drum ensemble, more recent troupes like the popular Cowboys and Indians are accompanied by string bands.

As globalisation continues to erode distinctive cultures, and Caribbean carnivals succumb to commercialisation, the Christmas Sports of St Kitts are both a delightful expression of authenticity and cultural identity and a salutary reminder to preserve Creole heritage.