Five Books Celebrating Caribbean Christmas

This piece was originally published on Storytime Solidarity a website launched November 1, 2021 to support the work being done by a Facebook group of the same name. The group and website is founded by Kate Reynolds, an openly autistic and queer librarian from Canada, with the goal of supporting children’s librarians to create StoryTimes that serve and welcome all children.

Article by Jessica King creator of Caribbean Children’s Books 

By Jessica KingCaribbean Children’s Books 

I grew up in the mainland United States, but during library school and the beginning of my library career, I lived in the Caribbean, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Around December, the weather was incredibly lovely – the risk of hurricanes had passed, and a nice breeze from the “Christmas winds” freshened up the hot sunny weather. At first, it didn’t feel like Christmas to me, but I was fascinated to see how the season played out. One author explained it perfectly:

“West Indians do not give up traditions easily – even traditions like Christmas trees and carols about snow that seem a little out of place on tropical islands.

Adopting traditions from other places is another West Indian tradition.”

Vashanti Rahaman, Author’s Note, O Christmas Tree

I saw this kind of cultural blending of traditions, with kids in flip flops taking photos with Santa (who was definitely uncomfortably hot in his velvet suit!), or a parade of boats lit with twinkling Christmas lights. While gorgeous green plant life was abundant all around us, there were still dark evergreen Christmas trees imported for sale – for a high price! Celebrating Christmas involved a lot of music – here’s one favorite song. Food, of course, was a wonderful element of Christmas time, and it features in each of these books.

Of course, what I experienced in the U.S. Virgin Islands is not exactly the same in different countries in the Caribbean. The first three books featured here are from English-speaking places in the southern Caribbean, from the countries of Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana. You’ll see a lot of common threads between them. The last two feature stories from Cuba and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and would pair well together.

1. O Christmas Tree

by Vashanti Rahaman and Frané Lessac

O Christmas Tree book cover
Photograph by Jessica King

A story of wishing, handling disappointment, and enjoying the holidays.

Anslem desperately wants a real Christmas tree. And although the older and wiser people in his life try to tell him, in different ways, “It don’t take tree to make Christmas,” he is bitterly disappointed when the entire shipment of real Christmas trees arrives, dead. Determined to have a real Christmas tree, he takes matters into his own hands, with mixed results. Ultimately, he is able to feel a real Christmas in the tastes and smells of Christmas ham, black cake, and ginger and sorrel drinks,  in his own good-humored family and kind neighbors, and in the real poinsettias blooming outside the window. (Excerpted from my review at Caribbean Children’s Books).

The details for this Caribbean children’s book:

2. An Island Christmas

by Lynn Joseph

An Island Christmas book cover
Photograph by Jessica King

If you want a story that shares an overview of Caribbean Christmas traditions, this story is a perfect choice.

There are “plenty things to do” as Rosie helps prepare for Christmas and then celebrates with her family. Rosie and her family make Christmas with traditional foods and drinks (sorrel, black currant cake, aloo pie, soursop ice cream – see my full review for recipes!). Rosie and her brother Ragboy listen to music from a parang band. They also decorate another traditional kind of Christmas tree – a guava branch that they polish white before hanging decorations on it. They also prepare homemade presents, receive special presents from their parents, and go off to church.

It’s a poetic story with a gentle plot about a warm, happy family and their traditions. I also love the illustrations — sunny pastel watercolors that bring Trinidad to life. The author’s note fills in some details about each tradition for the unfamiliar. (See my full review at Caribbean Children’s Books for more details.)

The details for this Caribbean children’s book:

3. A Piece of Black Cake for Santa

by Yolanda T. Marshall, illustrated by Subi Bosa

A Piece of Black Cake for Santa book cover
Image from the publisher

A more recent title, this book features an immigrant family bringing Caribbean food traditions with them to Canada.

I was excited to find a book featuring a family in the Caribbean diaspora! While traditions like Christmas trees come to the islands, it’s fun to see the exchange going the other way, as a family brings favorite holiday foods to their home in Canada. Full disclosure: I haven’t been able to read the whole book yet. From the back cover, “Femi and her friends planned to leave some traditional Caribbean treats out for Santa, including Black Cake. The children shared warm wishes for their favourite dishes while enjoying winter activities at the Christmas fair.” Wouldn’t it be fun to make black cake and read this story?

The details for this Caribbean children’s book:

4. The Road to Santiago

by D. H. Figueredo and illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla

The Road to Santiago book cover
Photograph by Jessica King

Cuba, 1958. Tonight is Noche Buena, the night before Christmas.

Alfredito and his family always travel to his abuela’s home to gather with family for games, singing, and a delicious meal. This year, there is a war going on between the government and the rebeldes, and their trip faces unexpected obstacles – a canceled train, a flat tire, and a full bus. Alfredito worries through these setbacks, but mostly on a child’s level – he doesn’t want to miss his chance to eat a delicious buñuelo and see his grandmother.

Thanks to his resourceful father and the kindness of strangers along the way, the family finds a way to make the trip – giving away the Christmas presents of sidra and torrones they packed in return for the kind favors they receive on their journey. They arrive safely just in time to set out to la Miso de Gallo, midnight mass. Alfredito bites into his honey-soaked buñuelo and believes that even in wartime, the world is “… still good and beautiful.”

This warm story has a strong message about kindness, anchored by realistic characters and beautiful sensory details based on the author’s childhood experience. The food (“roasted pork, boiled rice, beans, yucca, and fried plantains”) sounds so good, and the illustrator’s luminous paintings bring to life the landscape, the cars, the fashions, and the emotions of the traveling family in vivid color. (Taken from my original review).

The details for this Caribbean children’s book:

5. Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas Feasts of the Hispanic Caribbean

by Maricel E. Presilla and illustrated by Ismael Espinosa Ferrer

Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas Feasts of the Hispanic Caribbean book cover
Image from the publisher

A chef’s exploration of the global roots of Caribbean Christmas cuisine.

Good food and an exchange of traditions between cultures? I’m sensing a theme! This book, by Cuban American chef Dr. Maricel E. Presilla, sounds really

fascinating, especially for older children and their parents. It’s on my to-be-read list, but the Amazon preview has me intrigued!

Here’s the description, via Goodreads:

Bittersweet memories, delicious recipes, and fabulous feasts await you in Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad, a sumptuous introduction to the history of Christmas celebrations in the Hispanic Caribbean.

Beginning with her own memories of spit-roasted pork “with a garlicky Seville orange adobo” and holidays desserts such as turronesmazapán, and buñuelos, author Maricel E. Presilla takes us on a journey through the history of Christmas in the Hispanic islands. As she describes all of the foods of Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) and Christmas Day, she tells us about the peoples from around the world who brought their ingredients and recipes to the table.

We meet Arabs whose almond trees yielded the key ingredient in mazapán; Taino farmers who grew yuca; Spanish conquistadores who hunted pigs like in medieval Europe; African slaves who combined rice and peas to create flavorful new dishes. As she introduces each group of peoples and their foods, Dr. Presilla gives us carefully tested recipes that allow readers of all ages to join in on the feast. Ismael Espinosa Ferrer’s vibrant, colorful paintings evoke the magic of holidays in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and now the United States (Publisher’s description, via Goodreads).

The details for this Caribbean children’s book:

What else should I add to my list?

I know Christmas is also mentioned briefly in A Caribbean Journey from A to Y by Mario Picayo, and in I Am the Virgin Islands by Tiphanie Yanique. Do you have any favorite books that feature Christmas, the Caribbean, or holidays around the world? I’m always adding new book reviews to my blog, https://caribbeanchildrensbooks.wordpress.com/, and I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Jessica King

Jessica King is a librarian who loves children’s literature and spent the first part of her library career living and working in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an experience which inspired her blog, caribbeanchildrensbooks.wordpress.com. Jessica currently works as a reference librarian and enjoys interacting with patrons of all ages.

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