The Ongoing Death of December Carnival by Steve Whittaker


It was not that the sermons were winning. Christian conservatism has always offered criticism and antagonism of secular traditions, judgment and condemnation, under the guise of tough love protagonism. But interpretations of scripture and dogmatic anecdotes were never truly successful in changing the December tide. Though more and more people held the Sabbath of the seventh day holy—the hymnals, wooden pews, candle wax, polished crucifixes and white linen—few to none would never sacrifice the colorful and boisterous Carnival celebrations to God. Never totally; hardly ever while in the freedom of their youth anyway. Their minds were still digesting the oral tales and written histories. They still recalled how sermons enslaved them before they saved them. Even when their heads bowed and their eyes closed in reverence, they still remembered that words had to change before they could ask to receive and see the receipt of their prayer; how words had to change context and preachers and allegiance before Europeans stopped being the greedy middlemen of their destiny. Many still remembered that it was only during the occasional congregation of food, music and festival that their bodies and souls knew what it felt like to be free. God had to understand that even if the priests, reverends and missionaries did not.

The culture of carnival started losing the battle with survival when it stopped competing with itself; when it started relinquishing people and power to other parts of society and even other nations. The smaller celebrations became a threat. The pageantry of the individual, the calendar of community fairs and the revelry of tourists were rivals that were taken far too lightly until it was much too late for December to retaliate. Too late for December to even mount a defensive to preserve its unique intrigue mythology. Too late to even vie for coexistence with other events that copied and corrupted the dynamic of the dance.

The unfortunately adaptive and erratic invasive species of the fashion conscious spectator had started usurping power and space. To be part of the jubilant masquerade and joyful mayhem was too collective for the individual. Though, as part of a troupe, a person might be recognizable—the facial features and the shapely patches of body flesh exposed by the crazy and fancy costumes—no person could ever really be distinct enough. The tribalism of the dress made it impossible save for perhaps a unique dance and a peculiar chant to be that different from the person next to you. If one person was a crab red siren of the sea then almost everyone was a crab red sea creature. If one person was a black-silk-wearing-soca-warrior, then nearly everyone in that group was a similarly dressed soca warrior. Except for the mascot—shouldered or yoked to an elaborate creation of painted cardboard or color papier-mâché or both—everyone was fantastically the same and too plain to be in the host sun and searing gray of the asphalt. This was why people began to defect, leaving the wonderful chaos of a single costume troupe singing, dancing, sweating, bouncing and laughing with one another. This was why carnival lost some of its people to the concrete sidewalks and grassy slopes of Greenland. This was why people preferred to let breeze blow the perfume and cologne out of their new neatly pressed ‘gabs’ and umbrella their oiled and painted faces from a still stubborn sun. To be more different and not have to perspire for it. Carnival should have been inviting them back. But it just moved on leg by leg, event to event, on into the next year.

The villages had community parties which gradually evolved into street congesting festivals. This would have been fine as far as communal fun was concerned. They were alternative celebrations and community fairs that held people over in the interim between annual carnival events. Yes, they would have been fine—perfectly fine even—had they not also turned into conventions for civil xenophobia.

And no one would be more un-friendly toward strangers than the resident gang members; the acolytes of some dysfunctional opinions of how best to show territorial pride. Due to the modest size of the events, such divisiveness had been limited to a few foolish young and a few foolish old who had yet to grow into a change of heart. But the numbers with a tendency for unrest kept growing. Soon a few tosses of the fist and stick fights were not so few. Where the victims were ideally and generally agitators and the agitators the victims, the crossfire of bottles and stones clashed with the civility and jubilee. Matches between punches and machetes turned into knife swipes and gunshots. For a while the intensity was still considered a small misfortune in the reduced scale atmosphere of celebration. Fire still burned in pots of relish and rice, sorrel still stained bottles red and music still boomed from borrowed speakers. But this brevity of incident was ironically short-lived. The village spectacle between local J’Ouvert and last lap stretched, the ignorance of exclusion growing with the size of the revelry. From the urban and un-urban, everyone suddenly held the community celebrations not as alternative and interim traditions, but something to protect from everywhere else. Everyone outside the parish or across standpipe boundaries—those once welcome to participate with the expectation of good behavior—became members of the apocalypse, some outside threat always poised and ready to ruin the localised street dance.  Celebrations in the capital became both unrepresentative of the rural and betrayers of the urban. Too much and too little all at the same time. That was how smaller communities became rivals and a nation’s carnival had to fight even harder for survival. December could have opened its arms to Sandy Point’s Easter April or Capisterre’s festive September. Or even just hold hands with Cayon’s Green Valley May. But it just came when it came, leg by leg, event to event, year to year.

Private hotels and their collaborators provided ‘special offers’ to tourists for a costumed gallantry, part of the package for a paid room and board. However, discounts that could and arguably should have gone to humble citizens and school children who would do well to be part of some allegory to their history were few to non-existent. So instead unfamiliar faces and foreign passport patrons were given incentive and encouragement to play masse as they could afford, while the native residents scrape coffers to partake in that which their ancestors struggled to procure. The all inclusive experience of ‘carnival is we’ and ‘we is carnival’ tripped up on its own philosophy when descendant feet of the dance, cooking hands of the cuisine and moving mouths of the music were gentrified into a servitude of ‘chore-ism’. December people should have saved the funds and discounted the fun that was once theirs to have. But instead the keepers of the carnival held their tongues and their hands too tightly until an ever-collapsing monoculture forced them to polish their culture and sell themselves to the willing bidders. December could have continued to laugh at the wiggly white bodies and overwrought attitudes of black American cousins who failed to marry their hips to the ‘wild music’ of our West Indian heritage. But instead the people lamented themselves for having to smile in service; they silent grew sick and tired in having to censor the voices of their rhythm that once told every Massa from Columbus to Queen Elizabeth exactly what they thought without Massa ever knowing it.

Every concerned, carnival-loving man and woman and child should have been frustrated by the then-pending defeat of December. They should have reacted against the increasing invasion of the non-reveling residents who cared more for their every-day-but-Sunday best bests than their tradition and cultures. They should have travelled to their neighbor’s houses between community festivals and burned all excluding separatist beliefs over barbecue fires. They should have fought to regain their places taken by mock troupes of tourists. They should have asked the government to help preserve the spirit of December. They should have asked the schools to teach and reinforce the importance of Carnival to a once-endangered culture.

They should have at least requested the church to end their mission of extending colonialism through religion. Maybe that the religious leaders cease the antagonistic sermons about the implausible December birth of the Jesuit savior being undermined by a tradition that saved the flesh and sanity of an oppressed people; that the Vatican and other denominations’ diocesan heads attempt to address the alleged contributions of  the pagan Saturnalia as it may/may not overlap with the Christian Christmas; that the clergymen put down their dogmas and pious proclivities in service of congregations fractured by indifference, violence and foreign dollar dominance. They should have appealed to the church as part of the church, though they should have also to suffered to help themselves first before seeking intercession with God.

Every carnival December should have been saved by what now seems so obvious. Yet almost everyone pretended to be oblivious though the eventual grunts became evidence that they were not.

It is perhaps too late for ‘should have’. The only thing left for anyone to preach is ‘now must’. The parades have already lost so many participants. Parents started adopting reasons (arguably good and bad) to persuade their children that they should not covet the masks, wooden axes, and papier-mâché, look but never touch the strips of colored cloth and foil paper, to never see themselves in the mirror discs and peacock feather head dresses, to remain low spirited and grounded despite the high socks and higher energy of the fork-and-back acrobats. Teachers made habits of pretending they were never young and ideal enough to praise kings and queens of carnival or listen to the double-entendre decrees of calypso monarchies. Both men and women of the divine cloth continued to denounce the vulgar, rowdy Mansion bulls and diabolical Beelzebub whip-cracking clowns. The local radio stations started importing alternative entertainment; music genres from Jamaica and North America vying for holiday ears against chime of the steel pan drums, ting-pa-lang of string bands and the cheek inflating fife tunes that had been catching fire from mind to mind since before November. Television with its single idiotic unblinking eye projected images of choirs, pianos and dance recitals melodiously trying to murder the raw sticky, static visuals of jazzy, hype calypso tents. The allure of the sight and sound were going and almost gone, though many were there to stop it. December carnival is dying because it remained its same and stubborn self while those who claimed to love it seemed willing to let it die, declining health and appeal unchanged, greater potential unmet.

Steve Whittaker is a 5th year doctoral student from St. Kitts-Nevis. His work has appeared in Potbake’s anthology Jewels of the Caribbean.