The nine days of Christmas

Forget the 12 days of Christmas: in St Vincent they celebrate for only nine—but they start from as early as 3am

Santa on a Vincy sleigh dashing through the streets of Kingstown. Photograph courtesy the SVG Nine Mornings Committee

Michael Peters prepares for Christmas by waking up at 3 am for nine days to spend his time eating bread, drinking or storytelling.

Eccentric though this may seem, he’s not alone. Peters is the chair of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Nine Mornings Festival planning committee, and these are some of the events they plan for December.

While the festival’s early-morning activities take place from December 16–24 throughout the islands, there is a wide range of events all the way through the month, up to Old Year’s Night.

Peters says no one really knows how the festival started. One theory is that while the slavemasters went to church, the slaves, who had to remain outside, found ways to entertain themselves. The other is that after Roman Catholic priests in the 1920s held early-morning mass or novenas, churchgoers returned home singing and dancing, exchanging holiday greetings with each other.

Nine Mornings has been a very spontaneous and varied festival, from all accounts, with each generation doing something different. In the 1950s, it was traditional to take early-morning rides on well-lit, decorated bikes, and swim in the sea. Ten- and 25-cent fetes (parties) defined the 60s and 70s. In 1999, Lennox Bowman, Bassy Alexander, Joel Providence and Peters organised the festival in its present format, emphasising several long-established activities. Most events are free to the public and include such favourites as lighting, and carol-singing competitions, both on a community and national level, and lots of concerts.

A typical day for Peters during this time involves going to events from 3 am to 7 am, going to work at the Ministry of Culture, and then, from 7 pm to 8.30 pm, going to yet more events.  He has tried to retire from emceeing the festival numerous times, but without success—he enjoys it too much.

The festival, which relies heavily on audience participation, takes place in communities all over the islands. So much so, Peters says you can go to a new community every day and experience something different. Parents who generally have difficulty in rousing their children to go to school usually find themselves being awakened early so the family can go to the events. Children make up 50 per cent of the audience and get spots on the programmes, when new talent is often discovered.

Traditional food and drink are always available, such as sorrel, ginger beer, dough boy (bread baked with coconut) and ducana (made from cassava, this a sweet delicacy that is wrapped in banana leaves and boiled). Traditional music is played, with “Vincy” Christmas songs taking pride of place. Bowman, the treasurer of the planning committee, is a prolific songwriter, writing and producing these songs every year.

Usually launched on the first Sunday in December, this year, as the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary, it will open on November 30 at Heritage Square, Kingstown at 6 pm. It will start with a candle-lit street procession by the Police Band, cadets, boom drum, string bands and pan-round-the-neck, followed by the lighting of the national Christmas tree, an opening ceremony and a concert.

Visitors, who come from such diverse places as Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, England and the US, are always encouraged to take part.

Peters says, “Nine Mornings is the islands’ biggest visitor attraction, even surpassing our carnival.”