Like Christians all over the world, Caribbean residents regard Christmas as a joyful time of faith and put their own unique spin on the celebration of Christ's birth. For a memorable holiday, swap your mittens and snow shovels for suntan lotion and palm trees and head to the islands this Christmas!
Note: Make sure to book your trip to the Caribbean for the holidays way in advance as airfare and hotel rates tend to be expensive (or sold out, if you wait too long).
The annual, month-long Crucian Christmas Festival on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands begins the first Saturday in December and ends the first Saturday of the New Year; like traditional Caribbean carnivals, it features J'ouvert parties, the crowning of a Queen and King, calypso contests, parades, and a special festival village. In mid-December, folks gather along the Christiansted boardwalk to enjoy the annual St. Croix Boat Parade, an evening procession of watercraft of all shapes and sizes ablaze with Christmas lights and accompanied by music and fireworks.
The Dutch Caribbean: Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet
The islands of the Netherlands Antilles have a unique Christmas celebration that comes straight from Holland, with visits from Sinterklaas and his mysterious minions, the Zwarte Piet (Black Petes). In Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba, children receive their holiday gifts not only on Christmas morning but also on December 6, the birthday of St. Nicholas. In Curacao, for example, Sinterklass, the equivalent of Santa Claus only taller and thinner, arrives by boat in Willemstad in mid-November to give candy to children. Island children welcome Sinterklaas with carrots for his white horse and shoes in which to place gifts.
The Bermuda Christmas Boat Parade cruises through Hamilton Harbor each year, with boats adorned with Christmas lights and depicting various holiday characters. The event ends with a bang—a spectacular fireworks display to kick off the Christmas season in Bermuda. Crowds gather at the Hamilton waterfront and along Pitts Bay Road, but smart travelers will book a table at a harborfront restaurant or resorts like the Fairmont Hamilton Princess or the Waterloo House.
If you dream of a Caribbean holiday getaway but pine for a "White Christmas," head for the Cayman Islands, where local tradition calls for "backing sand" from local beaches on moonlit nights and spreading it around their yards and homes to stand in for a snowy welcome for Santa. Many old Caymanian houses are ringed with white sand yards for the holidays starting on Christmas Eve, and "first tracks" are forbidden until Christmas Day. As with Christmas lights and decorations up north, Cayman residents compete to have the whitest and most beautiful sand yard on Christmas morning.
Most Carnival celebrations focus on Easter, but the St. Kitts National Carnival kicks off the day after Christmas—known as Boxing Day in many parts of the world—with a traditional J'ouvert party and runs through New Year's Day. The Kittsian carnival celebrates local folklore and traditions through song, dance, drama, and poetry, and like other Caribbean carnivals, there are street parties, performances, and musical competitions.
Trinidad & Tobago and Grenada: Parang Festivals
Trinidad & Tobago is one of the Caribbean's most diverse islands—it's one of the few places in the region, for example, that has a sizable Muslim population. Still, Christianity is the dominant faith, and the annual Parang Festival celebrates the holiday season through song. At Christmas concerts and parties across the two-island nation—but especially the eastern Trinidad towns of Paramin and Arima—costumed bands perform traditional folk songs in Spanish Creole, accompanied by instruments such as mandolin, cuatro, and box bass.
The island of Carriacou in Grenada also has a well-known parang festival during the Christmas season. It is a lively celebration of one of the Caribbean's oldest indigenous art forms.
Montserrat's culture is a mix of Irish and African traditions, and the latter take precedence during the annual celebration known as Festival, which runs from mid-December to early January. Highlights of the island's annual carnival celebration include a Soca Monarch competition, the "Night of Pan" party, the crowning of a pageant queen, calypso contest, and a street party and parade on January 1, New Year's Day.