“It was a big thing, it was a very exciting thing. It was a beacon that Christmas was coming.”
– Alan Ebanks (interview with Richard Westmacott)
Christmastime is such an important part of Caymanian culture that it is part of our National Song, composed in 1930 by the late Mrs. Leila Ross Shier: “And when comes on the season | Of peace, goodwill to man, | ‘Tis then I love thee best of all, | Beloved Isle, Cayman!”
A favourite holiday tradition of yesteryear was “backing sand” to replenish the white sand yards of traditional cottages. On a moonlit night before Christmas, families would “back sand”, using baskets or buckets, from the beach to the house. The sand would be left in little mounds until it was time for it to be swept across the yard in preparation for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
In his interview with Richard Westmacott, Benjamin Ebanks said: “I was told the first settlers were from the cold countries and they thought the sand looked like snow. That’s what I was told anyway.”
In addition to freshly sanded yards, there are natural beacons of Christmastime in Cayman: The blossoms and berries of native plants like Christmas Blossom, Christmas Tree and Christmas Berry, and imported ornamentals such as Snow-On-The-Mountain, Christmas Palm and Christmas Candle, are all welcome portents of the holiday season.
Christmas Blossom | Vernonia divaricata
Also known as Christmas Flower or Christmas Bush, the purple or white flowers of this twiggy shrub are a sure sign of the holidays. These days, it is hard to find Christmas Bush outside of the rural areas in the eastern districts and Sister Islands.
A member of the Vernonia family (which owes its name to British botanist William Vernon), Christmas Blossom has been found effective against breast, leukemia and prostate cancer in a 2014 article published in the West Indian Medical Journal. A review of the genus published in 2013 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that, of the 109 Vernonia species, 105 plants were linked to the treatment of 44 human diseases/health conditions.
Although I’m not aware of Christmas Flower being used locally for medicinal purposes, it’s clear this shrub is a powerful plant ally.
Christmas Tree | Randia aculeata
Also known as Lancewood or Randia, Christmas Tree owes its name to the fact that it was often used in old people times as a substitute Christmas tree. The spreading, opposite branches are perfectly suited for hanging handmade ornaments.
Apparently, the white berries are edible but will turn your tongue blue! As such, they have been used in other cultures to produce ink and paint.
Though I don’t know of Lancewood being used medicinally in Cayman, in other countries it is used to treat dysentry and snake bites.
Christmas Berry | Allophylus cominia var. caymanensis
This bushy shrub is endemic to the Cayman Islands and is considered near threatened. Its green berries mature in December to bright red, earning it its local name.
Once again, although I am not aware of any local medicinal or cultural uses for this plant, a 2017 article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology concluded that Allophylus cominia is a possible source of new drugs for the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Gledhill, D. (2008) The Names of Plants. Cambridge University Press.
Westmacott, R. (1999) Gardens, Yards, Pieces, and Grounds. University of Georgia.