Sat | Jan 16, 2021

The thrill of Grand Market

Published:Thursday | December 26, 2019 | 12:09 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer
The Jamaican Christmas Grand Market has evolved from Yuletide festivity to a shopping frenzy of items that can be obtained throughout the year.
The Jamaican Christmas Grand Market has evolved from Yuletide festivity to a shopping frenzy of items that can be obtained throughout the year.

The institution of slavery in the British West Indies, of which Jamaica was a part, was one of the most inhumane systems ever created on Earth. It was replete with unspeakable cruelty and the brutal subjugation of people ripped from the bosom of Mother Africa for the purpose of European metropolitan aggrandisement.

The Africans who were enslaved on plantations in the name of mercantilism were subjected to the whims and fancies of plantation owners and operators who registered and insured them as chattel, not as people. But, despite the control and the hardship, enslaved people were given latitude to plant their own provision grounds to feed themselves and to sell their surplus in Sunday markets at ­village centres.

These Sunday markets were particularly bigger at Christmastime, when the Europeans took time out to observe the birth of Jesus Christ and the need for labour on the plantations was not so urgent. Things became lax, and from this sprang Grand Market, held on the market day immediately preceding Christmas or on Christmas Day.

Ivy Baxter, in her book The Arts of an Island, published in 1970, writes, “This non-religious, but financially useful activity had a ­particular social significance … . Christmas markets took place in many towns and served the purpose of getting goods and money exchanged. They also provided a social occasion in which people would meet in a situation different from home celebration.”


It was indeed a celebration of sorts as enslaved people were given some amount of freedom at Christmastime. There were generous amounts of food, provided by the masters, some of whom sponsored John Canoe (or Jonkunnu) parades, adding much festivity to the Grand Markets.

“Gradually, the festivity increased, ­buyers and sellers were better dressed on these occasions, and articles not considered general commodities were included for sale. Toys, noisemakers, balloons, decorations made out of bush, fern, creative and brightly coloured seasonal fruits such as tangerine, and red sorrel for making the traditional Christmas drink were sold,” Baxter writes.

In some markets, stalls were better decorated than usual. There were decorated paper hats, peppermint sweets, ‘wangla’, candy, iced cakes with gold and silver decoration, ‘fee-fees’ (noisemakers attached to balloons, firecrackers, and so on.

However, Baxter writes: “The Christmas market for the town areas came to be a very important occasion,” but little villages were not left out as people would gather in the squares to trade, to participate in local events, or just to loiter in their ‘Sunday best’.

And although Baxter also writes that “in modern times, Christmas markets have gone out of fashion”, in the 1970s and 1980s, the festivities of the traditional Grand Markets prevailed, and while it was held on the last Saturday before Christmas, the real festivity was when on Christmas Eve, a time of fever-pitch excitement and anticipation.

Grand Market was the day/evening when new shoes and clothes would have been worn for the very first time. Town centres were decorated with Yuletide motifs, and the Christmas trees were at the centre of it all. While much shopping would have been done in the day, when night fell, the magic unfolded and fantasy consumed all and sundry. It was a night when people who struggled to survive from day to day suddenly found money in their pockets.

In droves, they were pulled by the magnet of the bright lights of the town and city centres, where the air was filled with the aroma of all manner of traditional beverages and food, including roasted and boiled corn, soups, candy cane, popcorn, roasted peanuts, ice cream, snow cones, cane juice, ginger beer, and sodas.

Other features of the market were visors and decorated paper hats held down by pieces of elastic clinging to chins, fee-fees and other noisemakers, balloons, dolls, firecrackers, starlights (sticks that sparkle when lit), and traditional music bands.

There were also board and other games, contrived to ‘tek weh people money’, and much food and toy money went into the pockets of swindlers and pickpockets. Grand tears fell, young children screamed and bawled for their lost parents. Some children ran away from the John Canoe masqueraders who they had been dying to see.

As time went by, towards the end of the late 1980s, the intensity of the festivities began to wane significantly. By the turn of the ­century, the Grand Market of ­yesteryear had fizzled, dissipated by the winds of change. It has evolved into a frenzy of ­shopping for things that are available throughout the year. It is now a nostalgic memory etched in the brains of those who had experienced it but a social history lesson, just like plantation slavery, for those who had not.