Christianity -- and especially Catholicism -- is the dominant religion throughout the Caribbean, and many island residents are quite devout. So, despite the revelry associated with the pre-Lentin Carnival, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday tend to be solemn occasions in the Caribbean. With its emphasis on family, however, spending Easter in the islands also can be a warm and welcoming experience for visitors and, as with most things in the Caribbean, local traditions put a unique tropical spin on the holiday's religious and secular celebrations.
Parades take place in the Dominican Republic on Holy Thursday and Good Friday: the best known is the huge procession, known as the Samana Santa Procesion, that begins at the 16th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo after morning Mass and features costumed marchers and hoisted figures representing Jesus. Semana Santa is the biggest event of the year in many parts of the Dominican Republic and also one of the busiest travel times. In some more religious communities, activities like water sports are frowned upon during Holy Week, whereas in other parts of the country it's just another reason to go to the beach or hang out with friends.
The Virgin Gorda Easter Festival in the British Virgin Islands is a carnival-style celebration with a Calypso monarch competition, scratch bands, and other nightly entertainment. Easter Festival runs over the four days of Easter weekend, culminating with a street parade in Spanish Town on Easter Monday.
Fortune-Telling Eggs in Carribbean Easter Celebrations
Easter eggs play an important role in the Easter celebration in Jamaica, Barbados, and other islands, but you won't find locals hiding eggs on the beach. Rather, tradition holds that an egg white placed in a container of water on Holy Thursday will form a pattern of coagulated egg white by Good Friday that can be used to predict the future.
In Trinidad, an effigy of Judas Iscariot called a Bobolee is constructed out of old rags and then left out to be beaten by local residents as symbolic punishment for Judas' betrayal of Christ. Cries of "Beat de Bobolee!" rise from the crowd as the figure is merrily torn apart. Sometimes, the Bobolee is fashioned to look like unpopular contemporary politicians or other public figures, giving the tradition a more secular and political spin. In recent years, the word bobolee has been used in the Trini patois to mean a poor sap who is easily taken advantage of.
Easter Bonnet parades, egg hunts, kite flying, and of course relaxing at the beach with friends are also part of Trini Easter traditions.
By the way, if you're in Trinidad for the holiday, don't forget to take a side trip to the annual Tobago Goat Races, held the Tuesday after Easter in the village of Buccoo. There are crab races, too, and locals open their homes to visitors during the island's annual Easter parade.
Kite Flying on Easter Weekends in the Caribbean
Flying kites is a popular pastime year-round on many Caribbean islands, but seems to peak around Easter in islands like Bermuda, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Grenada, many of which hold annual kite-flying festivals on Easter weekend. In Bermuda, the link between Easter and kite-flying on Good Friday began when a local teacher with a British Army connection -- having difficulty explaining Christ's ascension to Heaven to his Sunday School class -- launched a kite with a likeness of Christ. Originally, kites were not flown until after 3 p.m., but now they typically stay up all day except if it rains.
In rural Jamaica, it is believed that cutting the physic nut tree on Good Friday will yield a reddish fluid, symbolizing the suffering of Christ. Some also believe that the tree is similar to that used in the crucifixion. On a more cheerful note, Easter season in Jamaica is also time for the island's premier local food event: the Trelawny Yam Festival, which is held Easter Monday.
Beware the Beach on Good Friday
Here's a Caribbean legend that probably won't be too popular with tourists: Tradition on some islands holds that if you step into the ocean on Good Friday, you'll turn into a fish. Others just say it's bad luck to go to the beach -- or at least bad form to be working on your tan on the day of the Crucifixion. In the Bahamas, however, Easter weekend is traditionally 'back to the beach' time -- think Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. -- since the south Atlantic waters have finally warmed up enough for locals to go swimming!
Haiti's Holy Week activities include loud and colorful processions on Good Friday, highlighted by bands playing 'rara' music on bamboo trumpets, maracas, drums, even coffee cans. As is typical in Haiti, Easter is a mix of Catholic and Voodoo traditions: voodoo believers make their annual pilgrimage to the Haitian village of Souvenance to express devotion to the African spirits, or loas that form the foundation of the religion.
Easter dinner is likely to include fish and -- in many English-speaking nations -- Easter buns, a tropical version of the English hot cross bun that can be spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, filled with raisins, currents and dried fruit, and topped with cheddar cheese or icing in the shape of a cross. In Bermuda, codfish cakes are traditionally eaten with local bananas, while in Jamaica the Easter feast is more likely to center on Escoveitched fish (marinated in peppers and other vegetables, then grilled) or roasted snapper or parrot fish. In the Dominican Republic, sweet beans (habichuelas con dulce) are traditionally served during the Lenten season as a substitute for meat.
Caribbean Resort Activities
Some Caribbean resorts organize special activities for guests staying over during the Easter holidays. The Fairmont resorts in Bermuda, for example, organize outings to the Bermuda Kite Festival, Easter hikes, Easter-egg hunts, and bonnet-making, while the St. James Club in Antigua has an Easter Funday that includes church services, an Easter treasure hunt and other activities for guests and island residents alike.
There's something about Easter and sailing that seems to go together, as evidenced by the annual Easter Regatta on Bequia in the Grenadines, and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force Challenge Cup, which is held Easter weekend on Montague Beach on Paradise Island. Bequia’s Easter Regatta is a combination of local boat racing, yacht racing, and traditional Bequia hospitality, with beach games, a sandcastle competition, model boat races, barbecues, music, and more. The Bahamas Challenge Cup features races and onshore activities including an Easter Egg hunt, coconut-tree climbing, dominoes and whist tournaments, and a Rake n' Scrape Band.