Guadeloupe, an overseas territory of France, is a Caribbean island of the Lesser Antilles. With its melting pot of French, African and Asian cultures, the people of Guadeloupe celebrate all their festivals in a unique manner. Christmas follows French traditions but with a Caribbean flair and distinct Creole influences. The festive atmosphere is prevalent from the end of November and throughout December, and visitors will notice that while a few modern western traditions are followed here, Guadeloupians emphasise strong family and community bonds as opposed to an extreme commercial vibe that is so common in Europe and North America.
Carol Singing in Guadeloupe
Going back to the early 20th century, most Guadeloupians came from a modest background, where gift giving was rare. Instead, what children and adults most looked forward to was “Chanté Nwel”, the Creole tradition meaning “singing for Christmas”. In rural areas, musicians would go around their villages with their drums, accordions, bells, chacha, and tibwa, and sing traditional French Christmas carols in their Creole style. They would choose songs that were appropriate for the Advent period and then sing specific carols for Christmas day. Very often, families would host the musicians for a meal of Christmas specialties like pork patties, ham and sorrel syrup, all washed down with rum and fruit liquors. This would continue night after night, throughout Advent and till the end of the Christmas festivities. It helped foster a sense of community and a celebration of life among the islanders.
As Guadeloupe developed, it became unsafe for the tradition to carry on in this way. Now, Chanté Nwel is still popular, but people instead take part in processions and gather at designated places called “Kakados” or cribs, which are named after a small river crayfish that used to be eaten during Christmas. It is at these Kakados that revellers sing carols together and a Kakado king and queen are crowned before the festivities continue. While the carols were traditional and religious in the early 1900s, they have become more secular and modern in recent years, taking on the rhythms of beguine and mazurka. While most Chanté Nwel gatherings are free to join, a few events sell tickets and have professional musicians play on stage.
Activities on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
The Advent period ends in a joyous Christmas for locals and tourists alike. White decorative lights are wound around the trunks of palm trees to give the island a festive feel. Religious Guadeloupians make it a point to attend midnight mass and celebrate the festival with food and drink after that.
The main Christmas meal is usually a family affair where the star dish is a fresh ham that is chopped into pieces and stewed or sautéed in a rum and cane sugar sauce, accompanied by blood sausage, rice with black-eyed peas and yams. A popular dish that is shared by all is a pigeon pea soup with salty morsels of meat. All this is usually washed down by some more locally produced rum, fruity punch and Ti-punch, which is a cocktail made of rum, lime, and sugar. However, the drink that is most popular during Christmas is a “shrubb”. This homemade liqueur is made with white rum that is scented with spices like cinnamon and cloves along with peels of local Clementine oranges. Dessert includes blancmange topped with coconut milk, and local patisseries churn out beautiful “Bûche de Noël” or Yule logs. The peel of a large grapefruit-like fruit called “chadec” is boiled and then candied, and a few families make red currant syrup that is used as a topping for the Christmas cake or as flavouring in cold drinks.
The next morning, children look for toys from Santa under a “Filao” or pine tree. This is a more modern tradition that came from Europe and North America.
Guadeloupian Christmas Around the World
Guadeloupians and other French Caribbean people living in other parts of the world have started to hold Chanté Nwel events in many Creole colonies. Homesick for their traditions, they bring a slice of their home to wherever they live, particularly in France. Visitors looking for a different kind of Christmas will find the perfect answer in Guadeloupe.