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Challenge of the Carols: Cruisers Christmas Morning in the USVI

Challenge of the Carols. Photo by Barbara Hart
Challenge of the Carols. Photo by Barbara Hart

Christmas Morning in the USVI

We walked into Emancipation Garden in Charlotte Amalie just before dawn. Despite the early hour, a few hundred people milled about; a television crew manned cameras placed around the grandstand and babies in holiday finery held their bottles and watched, wide-eyed, as choral groups in various costumes warmed up around the park’s perimeter. It was Christmas Day in St. Thomas and we’d set the alarm for five in the morning so we wouldn’t miss a bit of the 35th Challenge of the Carols.

As cruising sailors, we’ve learned that holiday celebrations can be postponed by weather windows, or running aground. We’ve celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with sailors from all over the world in Grenada, and toasted New Year’s Eve on January second in a solitary harbor in the Berry Islands. When we arrived in St. Thomas late in November of 2011, I eagerly perused This Week (the Virgin Islands entertainment and shopping guide) for holiday activities on the island. While EW hadn’t been thrilled when I first asked him if he’d be willing to get up before dawn on Christmas Day, he reluctantly agreed when I promised him brunch ‘of plenty’ later in the morning. Other sailors declined to join us and while they enjoyed a few more hours of sleep, they missed the perfect way to greet Christmas Day in St. Thomas.

According to the event’s program, there had once been an ‘old time tradition passed down for generations’ when youngsters in St. Thomas would go to bed early on Christmas Eve, and then wake before midnight in order to go out caroling. They would go from house to house where they would be greeted with refreshments, including ham, dumb bread, sweet bread, and guavaberry. Back then, most neighborhoods had their own choir, but like many old traditions, these Christmas choirs faded from the scene in the late 1930s and war years. Fortunately, in St. Thomas a number of local leaders decided to revive this legacy, and in the mid-seventies Glen ‘Kwabena’ Davis, Vernon Finch and Dorothy Elskoe started the Challenge of the Carols.  In the present day, choirs from schools, churches, the Salvation Army, and Banco Popular rehearse for months in advance, pay dues to support the event, and meet much earlier than 5:00am on Christmas morning to present two to three hours of sweet holiday music, island style.

When we arrived in the park, obviously outsiders, a young woman sporting reindeer antlers wished us a Merry Christmas and invited us to join her at the food tent, where a local family serves up breakfast, guavaberry juice, and bush tea to all who attend.  At that early hour, most of those present seemed to be the carolers and their family members. While more spectators joined us as the sun rose, we were surprised that only a small crowd attended. I imagine that many households tune their televisions to WTJX-Channel 12 and listen to the carols on Christmas morning, just as we in the states tune to the Macy’s Parade while we prepare our Thanksgiving meals.

The gazebo was beautifully decorated with traditional gold and red balls and garland. The individual trees in the park had been adorned with ornaments made by school children, each tree presenting a different theme. The milling choirs were dressed in red sweatshirts, white outfits with Santa hats, sharp Sunday best attire, or uniforms. Most groups sang acapella, but some were joined by a guitar, or wind instruments. The Salvation Army singers all performed with tambourines in a finely choreographed routine. Many of the songs were familiar, and most celebrated the spiritual reason for the holiday. Some of the groups also sang familiar secular holiday music and others delighted us with Christmas songs from the islands.

EW enjoyed it as much as I did, but still insisted on a bacon loaded brunch when we returned to the boat. It was a small price to pay. If you spend Christmas in St. Thomas, get up before dawn and join us in Emancipation Garden. I can think of no finer way to begin Christmas day than with the Challenge of the Carols.

Now sailing in the Caribbean, Barbara Hart lived aboard with her husband year-round in Maine for eight years. She has an active blog: www.HartsAtSea.com  sharing what she’s learned about living aboard, cruising, and staying married.

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