Often when you think about Carnival, you think about Brazil or Trinidad. But, did you know that our Carnival is the grand finale of the St Croix holiday season? After the gifts are opened, it’s time for Crucian Christmas Festival! And it’s a weeks-long celebration that closes out over a month of festivals, parties, and parades celebrating local Crucian culture and history. It’s the reason that I lovingly refer to St Croix as “Christmas Island”. For true.
I moved to St Croix in early December of 2001 from the snowy New England area and was a bit homesick at first thinking about Christmas without snow or a least bone-chilling cold. Quickly I learned that while I had grown up in a quintessential New England town that oozed the kind of Christmas spirit you see in the movies, I’d relocated to a tropical island that took it up about 10 notches!
Holiday Jump Up kicks off the Season
Here on the island, the season unofficially kicks off with the Holiday Jump Up on the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a much kinder, friendlier, and more community-oriented version of “Black Friday”. And much more fun too. Jump Up happens four times per year in downtown Christiansted with the main street shut down from 6 pm to 10 pm with street vendors, musicians and performers, including our traditional Moko Jumbies entertaining the crowds. Browse through the shops in Christiansted that open late with discounts and special deals. And taste local West Indian favorites from the street vendors or grab a table at one of the Christiansted Boardwalk eateries and people watch.
St Croix Christmas Boat Parade
The first Christmas event that I experienced on St Croix that season in 2001 is still my favorite event of the year – the St Croix Christmas Boat Parade. And it sure has grown over the years. I remember that first year sitting at a table along the rail at Rum Runners and easily being able to watch the boats as they went by decorated for the holidays. That was also the day that I knew for sure this was home. Nowadays, the family-friendly festivities start in town around noon, but it really starts to get busy just before dusk. I recommend being in town by 4:30pm to find a spot. Our island family has a spot up by Fort Christianvaern that has become our tradition. We watch from a hillside vantage point as thousands of people marvel at the boats colorfully lit up with Christmas lights, music, costume adorned boaters, and of course, Santa. It all ends with an absolutely spectacular fireworks display over Christiansted Harbor. There’s just nothing like it and it’s billed as the largest Christmas Boat Parade in the Caribbean. Make the second Saturday of December part of your Christmas plans. You won’t regret it!
Following these big events, there are parties, parades, pop-up Christmas Markets and craft fairs, and festivities throughout the month. Another favorite of mine is the lighting of the trees and the traditional Crucian Inkberry tree at Limpricht Park. Christmas on St Croix is an amazing time to learn about and become immersed in Crucian culture and tradition. At many events you’ll be serenaded by the Ten Sleepless Knights (TSK). They perform the lilting and joyful, traditional folk music of St. Croix and the US Virgin Islands. Originally led by cultural icon, Stanley Jacobs on flute, he still plays with TSK for special holidays and events. Ten Sleepless Knights is now a 501(c)(3) organization that has taken Quelbe music around the world. They serve as culture bearers to teach the next generation about this beautiful art form while promoting Crucian and Virgin Islands Culture. You’ll get the chance to taste Crucian and West Indian holiday favorites like gooseberry stew, red grout, guavaberry liquor, coquito, and more. Many of these traditions come from the mixing of cultures that came out of the dark days of the sugar trade, plantations, and slavery. They were influenced by colonialism (particularly by the Danish, Irish, and French in the Virgin Islands), by religious conversion, and the eventual celebration of freedom. This is also where the origins of Carnival in the Caribbean begin, and ultimately Crucian Christmas Festival.
TSK & the We Deh Yah Quadrille Dancers
The Origins of Carnival in the Caribbean
Carnival and Festival has its origins with the Roman Catholics in Venice, Italy dating as far back as 1296. There it’s known as Carnavale which translates to “farewell to meat/flesh” from Latin. Of course, as with many Italian/Roman Catholic holidays its roots are in pagan festivals. Carnavale’s pagan roots date all the way back to the Egyptians. Carnavale is celebrated before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and is a time for masquerading, parades, parties, reveling, and – well – a lot of debauchery before the austerity and fasting through the Lenten period.
The Italian celebration spread throughout French, Spanish, and other European Catholics. And it was the French influence that brought “Fat Tuesday” aka Mardi Gras to the Caribbean and eventually, New Orleans. Carnival in the Caribbean is said to have its beginnings with this French influence on Trinidad in the late 18th century. The French are why we “fête” and “bacchanal”! On Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean islands there were many freed blacks who worked as skilled architects, artists, tailors, and fishermen as early as the 18th century. They co-mingled with the Europeans on the island and participated in traditional European celebrations. Enslaved peoples brought with them West Indian traditions and these also had a strong influence on Caribbean celebrations. Eventually, with emancipation spreading throughout the islands during the early to mid- 1800’s (1848 on St Croix and throughout the Danish West Indies) Caribbean traditions and culture became a more heterogeneous mix of European colonialism and West African traditions.
In Trinidad, Mardi Gras mixed with the harvest celebration Cannes Brulées (burning of the cane) and eventually developed into something new. With emancipation it grew into a bacchanalian celebration of the rebellion from enslavement and incorporated both African and Indigenous cultural traditions. Canboulay (from the French, Cannes Brulées) on Trinidad is the origin of both calypso music and Carnival in the Caribbean. The music and songs that were sung during Canboulay were a way of retelling the stories of rebellion, empowerment, and wove in social commentary. Today these same themes are heard in calypso, soca, and reggae music and Carnival is a celebration of reclamation and empowerment for local communities and revelers.
VI Strong Moko Jumbie 24×36 Canvas
Each island in the Caribbean has it’s own Carnival celebrations at different times of the year. Here in the US Virgin Islands, St Thomas celebrates during the traditional time before Easter; St John celebrates Carnival through Emancipation Day (July 3rd); and St Croix celebrates what is now known as Crucian Christmas Festival starting just after Christmas and through Three King’s Day (January 6th – the twelfth day of Christmas).
Crucian Christmas Festival
Officially started in 1952, Crucian Christmas Festival blends together both Carnival celebrations and Caribbean Christmas traditions that stem from the days of slavery and colonial rule. During the era of chattel slavery, Christmas Day (and perhaps New Year’s Day) was the only day that the enslaved Africans were permitted to freely travel to other plantations to visit. Often it was the only day of the year that they may see family members who had been sold or traded to other plantations. They were also allowed during this time to sing and play instruments, so often they traveled singing and dancing and parading together. Today, we celebrate this with J’ouvert (the French word for day break) and traditional Tramps where people celebrate and dance behind trucks with DJs and bands driving the energy. You’ll quickly see why Crucians love a fête and celebrate all season long!
Here on St Croix aka Christmas Island, you’ll find lots of celebrations, parades, tramps, and more that incorporate traditional foods, crafts, music, and the incredible Crucian hospitality that islanders are known for. You’ll find the Christmas Festival Village open in Frederiksted by the waterfront right before New Year’s Eve. Entry is free and there are nightly free concerts featuring local artists from the Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean, carnival rides and games, plenty of local food and carnival fare, and lots of fun for the entire family. The Crucian Christmas Festival Village week long celebrations end with the Children’s Carnival Parade on the Friday closest to Three King’s Day and the Grand Finale is the Adult Carnival Parade on Saturday followed by fireworks off of the Frederiksted Pier.
Visit St Croix throughout December and the first week of January and I know you’ll quickly agree that St Croix is truly Christmas Island! You can find a list of all the fun Christmas and New Year’s events, festivals, parades, and entertainment on our St Croix Events Calendar.