This year the Easter holiday runs from Good Friday on 14th April through to Easter Monday on 17th April. Saint Lucia is undeniably rich in history, culture and tradition and, just like at other festive times, we have our own eccentric twists in celebrating Easter.
From the time of “discovery”, colonialism and slavery, our European influences were mainly French and British; the predominant religion here, though, has been Catholic due to the guiding force of the French. Easter is the most important Christian holiday, when the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. Easter in Saint Lucia is still a major holiday, observed with special church services and with days when businesses are closed and others when they operate with limited opening hours, but ask any older person in Saint Lucia and they will tell you that Easter used to be a bigger and better celebration, like Christmas: merry and festive with special foods, activities and atmosphere.
The season of Lent, beginning 40 days prior to Easter, is a reflective time used to pray and develop a closer relationship with God; a time for fasting, repentance, moderation, self-denial and spiritual discipline, just as Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. I remember that my family used to attend day retreats at the church; separate retreats were held for men, women and children.
During Lent, many Lucians still tend to stay away from “distracting” practices and foods such as meat, eggs, dairy, chocolate, alcohol, sex and smoking. At one point there were no parties throughout Lent. Nowadays some of the regular Friday night street parties, such as those in Dennery and Anse La Raye, take a break for a few weeks. The Friday night jump-up in Gros Islet (to the consternation of the staunch Catholics) continues to provide entertainment for fun-seeking locals and tourists.
Holy Week is the last week of Lent and includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In Saint Lucia it used to be the week of preparation for the Easter celebrations. During Holy Week penepis/penny-a-piece, a locally-made ginger wafer, is still baked to be eaten throughout the long weekend. The name derives from the French ‘pain d’espice’ (spiced bread) but in the days of pounds, shillings and pence (the old British currency) the wafers were literally sold for a penny per piece. The ginger biscuit was originally served in place of dessert, such indulgences being frowned upon during Lent. In some families, coalpots (our traditional clay cooking pots) and cast iron pans are pulled out from the cupboards on the Thursday to fry saltfish accras and ‘bakes’ the next day.
Good Friday recalls the day when Jesus Christ died on the cross and his body spent the first day buried in the tomb. Saint Lucian oral tradition dictates that on Good Friday people should never do gardening, wash in the river or go to the beach. The belief is that ploughing the ground might prick Jesus Christ’s body and that rivers and seawater would turn into his blood. Then there is the haunting superstition that people would drown if they went swimming on Good Friday. The habit of not visiting the beach on that day remains strong on our island so it is unusual to encounter Lucians at the beach on Good Friday.
Catholic churches here still hold a solemn procession on Good Friday, that we call ‘Way of the Cross’, when we reflect on the crucifixion. When I was a child I used to watch the Gros Islet procession from my balcony. The people walked slowly through the streets, carrying candles, and made their way to Morne Croix, a hill where the church had erected a statue of Jesus on the cross; it still stands today.
If it rains here on Good Friday, the Catholic Church is said to use the rainwater as its Holy Water for the coming year. As Easter is technically in the island’s dry season, the church must have other plans for if it does not rain that day.
Fish, a symbol long associated with Jesus, is the food consumed on Good Friday. Another reason for meatless foods that day is it could signify eating Christ’s dead flesh. I have fond recollections from childhood of a special accra fishcake that my grandmother made; there used to be tiny fish in Saint Lucia’s streams and rivers that we called ‘twee twee’ and they made the most moist and tasty fish cakes of all! I remember being sent to my grandmother’s house in the countryside every Good Friday; children used to skip from house to house to sample and collect from everyone’s hot batches of fried goodies. We would wash them down with local ginger beer – the beverage that everyone drank at Easter. Sweet memories!
Holy Saturday is known locally as Samedi Gloria. It is not a national holiday but, again, traditionally fish, ground provisions and leftovers from Good Friday are consumed. Any fish would be suitable for a meal but salted mackerel with yellow yam and christophene gratin is one that always reminds me of Easter. I can still picture my grandparents cooking it. They would serve it with pink or red beans and my task in the kitchen was to shell the beans. I enjoyed it because it was part of the ritual and I knew the meal would be delicious
Similar to the local custom of fattening a cow or a pig for Christmas, families used to prepare a sheep for Easter. Meats to be eaten on Easter Sunday used to be slaughtered only on Holy Thursday and Samedi Gloria.
Easter Sunday, which represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is mostly spent attending church masses or services. Similar to the American Easter parade traditions in the 1800s, ladies would wear to church their new spring dresses with pastel colours or floral prints. Easter Sunday remains a day for family gatherings and lunch. In olden days, beef soup and stewed beef and mutton with ground provisions would often be served. Other meats, fats and alcohol would be permitted in the diet, signifying the end of the Lenten season.
My grandmother told me that if I looked into a mirror at exactly midnight on Easter Sunday, I would catch a fleeting glimpse of my future husband. It hasn’t happened yet so maybe I’m destined to remain single!
Easter Monday here is the day for fun and happiness with beach picnics and kite flying. Saint Lucia is beautiful all year round but the collective blooming of trees and the perfect balance of sunlight and cool breeze are ideal for both picnics and kites. On Easter Monday children make their way to hilltops or the seaside to fly their kites, usually home-made but increasingly store-bought. If the kites survive Easter Monday they will be seen dotting the skies for the rest of the school holidays.
Big groups of friends and families get together and prepare food and drinks for a beach party. You will see them driving to the beach with ten or more people in the back of a pick-up truck. They set up a tent or a tie a tarpaulin to tree branches to provide shade, or lay out everything in the back of the truck. There is always music playing from the truck’s speakers; sometimes local creole music, maybe some reggae, even country and western. That’s what our picnics are like.
Aqua-Mele is a recent secular addition to Saint Lucia’s calendar of Easter events, evolving kite-flying and beach gatherings into a fair and competition. Head to the beach near Pigeon Island and The Landings resort to join in the fun and watch the aerial entertainment.
Most of these traditions are now only practised in the countryside or by those who remember them but Easter still has a very religious undertone. All celebrations are family-oriented but are no longer as festive as Christmas. Mothers still dress their girls in their frilliest spring colours on Easter Sunday and luncheons are laid out with all sorts of baked meats and pies. Recently we have adopted other traditions especially for children, of Easter egg hunts, bonnet parades and, of course, Peeps the colourful marshmallow chicks. So, all in all, Easter is still an important time of the year, still a religious celebration and it will continue to provide children with memories to treasure when they are older.