Gifts of December

When I was a child, in Guadeloupe, December 1st marked the beginning of a time of guaranteed pleasures. All I had to do was sit comfortably on the backseat of Mama's car while she was driving through the countryside and my ears would receive a full feast. All over the island—as early as I can remember—people had been organizing Christmas parties (Chanté Nwèl) where they shared seasonal specialties and formed informal choirs to sing the local, traditional carols. Driving with the windows down would allow the wind to share with us the songs it had been carrying on its back, in a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; building anticipation for the parties we too were to attend during the season. Walking around in any community meant that, as you passed a kitchen window, you would hear the clanking of spoons and ladles on big cast iron pots filled with white yams, stewed pigeon peas or the most flavorful fried pork ragout—with the subtle, rounding touch of a bay rum tree leaf. If you were lucky, you would catch the process of boudin[1] making. If luckier, you would not miss the mixing of spices—women would chop Caribbean chives, parsley, garlic, fresh thyme and chili and fried it all very slowly, until all the aromas were released and danced in the air. I was particularly fond of Christmas decorations, especially the lights. People would hang garlands upon garlands on filaos[2] wherever they could find them. Sometimes, we did wish for snow—It was all over television. Could you really blame us? However, the contrast of winter themed decorations on a lush, green background was always a win. The colorful and vibrant illuminations of December rivaled poetically with the plainly beautiful lights for our Dead, just the month before. It was a time of milder weather, when the aggression of the heat had retreated and allowed the trade winds to hug our skins like fluffy cotton shawls. Sure… all of that was wonderful. But my true source of happiness was to be found on Saturday afternoons when we went deep in the countryside to visit my grandparents. They lived in a small, very traditional, wooden Guadeloupean house surrounded by an entire community of people committed to life in togetherness. “Manman[3], can we go get them now?” Oh, my mother knew what I was referring to. I had not stopped blabbering about it on the entire trip to Nana and Grandpa. Of course, she said yes. Asking was just a formality anyway; it was merely so she would know where to look if we had to go. I would grab my little sister's hand and we would run down the tuft road to first say hello to our great-aunt, Nana's sister. In her home, the radio was always playing biguine[4]. It was quite dark inside as the house was surrounded by fruit trees, which protected it from the hardest bites of the sun. “Hello, Aunt Lena.” A step or two of the biguine to mimic the old people's ways and make my great-aunt laugh and it was time to go. We would then rush back to Nana's house and say hello to Ma' Nò, on the other side of the road. Year-round, she had fat pomegranates hanging from a slim and short tree and she would always give us one to share. “Thank you, Ma' Nò!” Then we would run along the side of her house, pushing the tall grass, jumping over a tiny little stream to find ourselves on a small country road; and just 50 feet down stood heaven in the form of a jujube tree. The sight of the first leaf indicated the start of the hunt for the perfect fruits. I wanted them as soon as they had turned yellow—not completely—a bit of green was particularly desirable. This was the promise of sweetness, juice and just the right amount of tartness. Imagine sinking your teeth… Careful! Not too fast, not too hard. It is quite easy to hurt oneself. The stone in the middle is hard as a rock. Instead, allow your teeth to pierce the crisp skin and to feel the Granny Smith-like crispiness underneath, together with the first drops of sweet juice. Close your eyes—it only intensifies the experience. Bite off a piece of crunchy flesh and enjoy the transition of the texture, from a crackling sweet and sour battle to a mucilaginous puree with the taste of what happens when an apple tree has fallen in love with the tropical sun and founded a family of fun-size fruits of heaven. An occasional really yellow one was a special treasure—a burst of sweetness, less firmness, more chew; even more perfect when it preceded a barely ripe, mostly green one that would make saliva rush to your mouth with its amazing sharpness. Paradise, I say. Pleasure in abundance! If we were lucky, and not trapped in a hungry trance, we would bring a fistful back to the house so that others could partake in the deliciousness, the precious gift of nature that was sirèt[5] season. ----- [1] traditionally a blood sausage [2] horsetail she-oak [3] Mommy [4] 19th century music from Guadeloupe and Martinique [5] jujube

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Bernard Jan

Award-winning, multi-genre author, novelist,...

Zagreb, Croatia