Jamaica’s Public Holidays
New Year’s Day
January 1, which marks the beginning of a new year in Jamaica, is greeted with much pomp and gallantry as elsewhere in the world. With the New Year come many expectations of better things and renewed vitality. At this time individuals make resolutions as to goals that they wish to accomplish throughout the year.
People across the island make plans and participate in lavish balls and parties as they ‘ring’ in the New Year in a spirit of togetherness. Others begin the New Year in church committing themselves to a closer relationship with their creator. However it is spent, the New Year opens up a world of opportunities for all.
Ash Wednesday, which occurs six weeks before Easter is observed as the first day of Lent, a 40-day period devoted to fasting and penitence. The Lenten season has been observed since the early centuries, but during that time, the period varied. Eventually, religious leaders sought to conform the Lenten season to exactly 40 days after the examples of the time spent in the wilderness by Moses, Elijah and Christ.
It was the practice in Rome for penitents to begin their period of public penance on the first day of Lent. As a sign of their penitence they wore sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes. Although this form of public penance began to die out in the Ninth Century, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.
Since the early centuries, fasting rules have been strict in Eastern churches, but have been gradually relaxed in the West. The strict rule of fasting among Roman Catholics have been gradually relaxed since World War II and only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are now kept as Lenten fast days.
In Jamaica worships services are held on Ash Wednesday in the Anglican, Lutheran and some other Protestant churches, but those churches generally leave the question of fasting to the consciences of individual church members.
This day marks the end of the Lenten season, a period during which Jamaicans make special efforts to cultivate good habits or do worthy deeds.
A three-hour vigil service is customary in Jamaican churches. Churchgoers may be seen hurrying to get to church by twelve o’clock. The service, though long is always interesting with guest speakers from other parishes and the building is usually packed to capacity.
The dress code for Good Friday stipulated the wearing of black, white or purple or any combination of these three basic colours. This custom used to be rigidly observed; no one would wear any other colour to service, or any place else for that matter, on Good Friday. Today, any dark colour will do – deep blues and greens while others will wear just about any colour.
In Jamaica, almost everyone attends church on Easter day. Easter weekend in Jamaica is usually a quiet time, with families going to the beach or just staying at home. The traditional bun and cheese is eaten and enjoyed.
Children enjoy Easter as kite flying immediately begins and the treasured kites can soar into the air, competing with other kites.
Easter is the most important festival in the Christian faith as it symbolizes the resurrection and confirms the divinity of Christ. Many Christians who do not go near a Church at other times of the year attend at Easter. In many churches, the magnificent Alleluia chorus is sung, as Easter is above all a time of celebration and of reconfirmation of faith. Even if not religious, one should think of the good things in life and about lucky we are to alive and to have friends and a beautiful world to live in.
The International Labour Day movement was born out of the struggle to free workers from extreme conditions of repression, exploitation and racism that generally existed in the late nineteenth century.
In 1888 the American Federation of Labour voted to fix May 1st as the day of commemoration for those who had lost their lives in Chicago for this cause. A year later leaders of organized labour movements in various countries met in Paris and accepted May 1st, 1890 as the commemoration day for the international struggle to establish the eight-hour working day.
In 1961 the Jamaican Parliament decide to abolish Empire Day, May 24th, and declared that the anniversary of the working class movement, which began in 1938 in Jamaica, be celebrated instead of May 23rd. Celebrations then evolved into a day of expression of rivalry rather than a joint celebration of victory. The greater percentage of the population was never really involved in these celebrations.
In 1972 then Prime Minister, the Hon. Michael Manley gave this National Holiday a new dimension by issuing an appeal to all Jamaicans to put some meaning into Labour Day by making it a day of voluntary labour. Mr. Manley himself spearheaded this movement by announcing that he would be working on the Palisadoes Road, clearing land and planting and generally beautifying the hitherto barren strips of land.
Since then clubs, groups, organizations, individuals as well as entire communities all over Jamaica have given free labour to beautify public areas, repair, paint or build old people’s homes, basic schools, community centres and churches. The main objectives of Labour Day were, and still are, to ‘enhance the dignity of labour’ by improving the environment, inspiring the spirit of community development, and by encouraging the principle of working together and sharing.
August 1 is celebrated as a national holiday and this marks the date of the emancipation of blacks in 1838. This is the time when apprentices finally got their freedom after the two-year apprenticeship period ended. At first suspicious and skeptical, the apprentices were watchful, prayerful and quiet until they later realized that they were truly and finally free.
Emancipation Day is celebrated across the island with all night vigils being held on the eve of Emancipation Day. These are conducted in churches and town squares throughout the island. At midnight there is drumming, pealing of bells, with celebrations continuing into the dawn of “First of August”. This is an effort to re-create the atmosphere that existed in the early days and in so doing establish a sense of feeling about August 1.
After more than 300 years of British rule it can be said that Jamaica drifted into Independence rather than by struggling, as the majority of the electorate voted in 1961 against Jamaica’s further participation in the Federation. As a result of the Referendum, a conference was held in London and the decision taken that Jamaica should receive its Independence.
On Monday, August 6, 1962, Jamaica ceased to be a colony and became a nation. Being a nation meant that Jamaica would be responsible for is own affairs. Jamaicans would travel on Jamaican passports under the protection of the Jamaican Government. The Jamaican people were finally given right and Jamaica would be responsible for its own defence and in making treaties with foreign or Commonwealth Governments.
Each year Jamaica celebrates its Independence by having various cultural presentations in which all Jamaicans can participate. These include a Culinary Arts Exposition, Fine Arts and Photography Exhibitions, a Festival Song competition, Dance, Speech and Drama contests, costume shows, Grand Gala and street parades and dances.
The Independence season draws hundreds of visitors to the island and many Jamaicans living abroad also return for the season of festivities.
National Heroes Day
This is the day in October when Jamaica takes time to acknowledge and show their appreciation for the outstanding sacrifices made by our forebears known as our National Heroes. On this day following a full week of activities throughout the island, the celebrations culminate with flag raising ceremonies usually organized by Parish Councils. There are also tree-planting ceremonies, concerts and the laying of wreaths at the foot of monuments dedicated to the nation’s heroes.
In addition awards are offered to persons said to have made outstanding contributions to nation building in their work.
This is the day when countries across the world, including Jamaica commemorate Christ’s birth. It is a time of much celebration as individuals reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ and what this event means for all Christians.
Traditionally, it has been observed as a quiet time with much emphasis being placed on the family and togetherness. Individuals usually attend an early morning church service after which they return home to prepare extravagant Christmas dinner. In recent times, however the season has become rather commercialized with great significance being placed on gift exchange. This also bears on the fact that Christ gave himself as the ultimate gift to Mankind.
Boxing Day is observed on December 26 of each year. Its English origin is uncertain. There are some who believe it evolved out of the practice of using the day following Christmas to open and distribute the contents of alms-boxes in the parish churches. Others think it is connected to the use of earthenware boxes by apprentices when collecting their master’s money.
Whatever, its origin, Boxing Day in England was the day when gift boxes or small money gifts were given to postmen, dustmen, lamp lighters, errand boys or any ‘small man’ who served the general public without being directly paid by its members. This was done as part of the idea of being generous and spreading joy at Christmas. In Jamaica this practice still continues although it is threatened by economic difficulties.
Boxing day is usually celebrated with a community fair and dance at which most members of the community will be present. It is also a time for family outings to the beach.