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Live the Jamaican Experience: A Glimpse at 9 of Our Fascinating Traditional and Cultural Practices

Jamaican Experience; Jamaican Culture; Jamaican People; Jamaican Traditions; Jamaican Heritage; Jamaica Attractions

The Caribbean Island of Jamaica is known for its colorful culture and long list of traditions. If you are planning to visit, you should want to know the personality of the island which is shown through its culture and traditions. Jamaicans have a “colorful” nature which is a reflection of their unique customs and traditions. The Jamaican experience as shown in our rich cultural traditions, the food, the heritage, and the people make it a favorite destination for people around the world. The multiracial society that forms the people (and language) of Jamaica truly depicts the spirit of Jamaican culture of "Out of Many, One People."
 

As a Jamaican, I grew up experiencing some of our traditions. Traditions such as tasting the rum/fruit cake from Jamaican weddings that had being frozen for serving on the first anniversary of the couple; attending watchnight church service on New Year's Eve; and going to "nine night" gatherings. If you have never had rum/fruit cake, the older it gets, the better it tastes, so enjoy when in Jamaica.

Jamaican traditions help in defining the culture of our society. They are the ritualistic acts carried out over a specific period of time or at a specific event and are fundamental to our beliefs.
 

Take a look at 9 of our traditional and cultural practices and experience the true Jamaican life!

The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica drawing on African, Caribbean, Folk, and modern dance promotes Caribbean Culture.
The Acclaimed National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) in Motion!

1. The Language of Jamaica

When it comes to discovering facts about Jamaican culture, language is the first thing you might ask about. Jamaican language is a wonderful manifestation of the melting pot of cultures that make up this island’s populace. The official language of the island is English, so you’ll have no problems communicating with local people, if that's your native language. However, Jamaican residents have a distinctive linguistic style that you’ll likely have heard before.

The local dialect combines elements of other languages, from Spanish and African dialects, to Irish, British, and American phrases. If you're looking to get some more intimate knowledge of how people in Jamaica speak, look into this list of common Jamaican sayings and phrases.
 

Some elements of the Jamaican language can be traced back to the island’s past in slavery, where African languages mixed with the native language of slave owners.

Some Phrases That Only a Jamaican Would Understand

 

2. Jamaican Cuisine

The cuisine of Jamaica is well known throughout the world, and there’s a good reason why. It’s delicious! Jamaican cuisine focuses on memorable flavors, with plenty of Caribbean spices that gives an exquisite taste to the food. It consists of a wide mixture of influences reflecting our rich cultural heritage. The colonial history of the island has created a melting pot of foods influenced by countries around the globe.

One of the most famous dishes in Jamaica is jerk chicken, a fiery dish that combines the heat of scotch bonnet peppers with other spices like thyme, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Another popular dish to try while you’re in Jamaica might require a bit of courage, but if you want authentic cuisine you’ve got to sample the local goat’s head soup, and the cow foot stew. Don’t be put off by their names. These dishes are tasty!
 
One of the most famous dishes in Jamaica is jerk chicken, a fiery dish that combines the heat of scotch bonnet peppers with other spices like thyme, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
World-Renowned Jamaican Jerked Chicken

3. The Arts and Cultural Institutions

The Institute of Jamaica, an early patron and promoter of the arts, sponsors exhibitions and awards. The institute administers the National Gallery, Liberty Hall, the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica, and the Jamaica Journal. The institute is also the country’s museums authority. The Jamaica Library Service, Jamaica Archives, National Library, and University of the West Indies contribute to the promotion of the arts and culture, as do numerous commercial art galleries. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust is responsible for the protection of the material cultural heritage of Jamaica.

 Local art and poetry shows are common, and the visual arts are a vigorous and productive part of Jamaican life. Well-known artistes include Barrington Watson, Edna Manley, Claude McKay, and Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou).
 

Jamaican theatre and musical groups are highly active. The National Dance Theatre Company, formed in 1962, has earned international recognition. Much of the country’s artistic expression finds an outlet in the annual Festival.

 In the 1950s and ’60s Ernie Ranglin, Don Drummond, and other Jamaican musicians developed the ska style, based in part on a Jamaican dance music called mento. Reggae, in turn, arose from ska, and from the 1970s such renowned performers as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee "Scratch" Perry made it one of the island’s most-celebrated international exports. Dancehall music—which focuses on a rapping, or “toasting,” deejay—also became popular in the late 20th century. Jamaican musicians release hundreds of new recordings every year. Reggae Sumfest draws large crowds of local and overseas enthusiasts.
 

"Mr. Brown" by The Wailers

This song was written by Upsetters musician Glen Adams. The lyrics were inspired by a local tale of a duppy who was supposedly seen speeding around on a three-wheeled coffin with two "John Crows" (buzzards) on top, one of which would ask for "Mr. Brown." Glen was due to record it himself but Lee "Scratch" Perry suggested that the Wailers record it. Peter Tosh & Glen added spooky organ riffs.

4. Sports in Jamaica

Cricket is played throughout the island, including at Kingston’s Sabina Park and on makeshift pitches (fields). Jamaica has produced many players for the regional West Indies team, notably the Panamanian-born George Alphonso Headley and fast bowler Michael Holding. A 25,000-seat multipurpose stadium was constructed in Trelawny for the 2007 International Cricket Council World Cup.

The National Stadium in Kingston is the major venue for football (soccer) and track and field (athletics). Football has challenged cricket’s supremacy since 1998, when Jamaica’s national team, the Reggae Boyz, qualified for the World Cup finals in France. Basketball is probably the fastest-growing sport in schools and colleges, owing to television coverage of professional teams from the United States. Other sports, such as golf, tennis, and diving, have developed in tandem with the tourism industry but are beyond the financial reach of most Jamaicans. The game of dominoes is extremely popular.

The island has a distinguished Olympic record in track and field, earning gold, silver, and bronze medals since 1948 at the Olympics; with notable athletes such as George Headley, Deon Hemmings, Usain Bolt, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah.

 

The island’s heroic, if unsuccessful, national bobsledding team was wildly popular at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary; the team’s unorthodox ways were later depicted in the film Cool Runnings (1993). The team continued to make appearances at subsequent Winter Games. At the 2000 World Push in Monaco the team won the gold medal.

Jamaica is usually placed among the top teams in international netball. Horse racing is popular and takes place at Caymanas Park in Kingston. A few Jamaican boxers have excelled internationally. In 1962 Jamaica hosted the Central American and Caribbean Games.
 
A Jamaican sprinter who specialises in the 100 metres and 200 metres. She is a five-time Olympic champion, having won gold in both the 100 and 200 metres at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and again at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Elaine Thompson-Herah, Jamaican Sprinter Overwhelmed by Her Victory

5. Daily life and social customs

Family life is central to most Jamaicans, although formal marriages are less prevalent than in most other countries. It is common for three generations to share a home. Many women earn wages, particularly in households where men are absent, and grandmothers normally take charge of preschool-age children. Wealthier Jamaican families usually employ at least one domestic helper.

The main meal is almost always in the evening because most people do not have time to prepare a midday meal and children normally eat at school. Families tend to be too busy to share most weekday dinners, but on Sundays tradition dictates that even poor families enjoy a large and sociable brunch or lunch, usually including chicken, fish, yams, fried plantains, and the ubiquitous rice and peas (rice with kidney beans or gungo (pigeon) peas.

Jamaica - Everyday Life

6. Religion in Jamaica

Religion goes hand in hand with Jamaican family culture, and you’ll notice as you travel around the island that there are churches almost everywhere you look. In fact, there are more churches per square mile in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world! (Source: Guinness Book of World Records.)

Jamaica is a Christian nation, and you’ll find that most locals are deeply religious and attend church on Sundays with the whole family. This weekly celebration is really a sight to behold, so if you’re able to attend a local church service, you should try to do so.
 

In Jamaica, there is a wide range of types of Christianity being practiced. You’ll find Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Seventh Day Adventists. Jamaica is also home to many communities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Rastafarians.

Christmas and Easter seasons are popular with churchgoers when churches are packed, as Jamaicans celebrate the birth and resurrection of Christ.

Jamaica Noel (Jamaica BobbyG) at Riverside Community Church

 

7. Jamaican Birth Rituals

The people of Jamaica have several indigenous customs and beliefs. Most of them are related to the birth and the death rites of a person. Furthermore, while most of these customs are widespread and are practiced even by the Jamaicans who reside overseas, there are some others, which are practiced only in some parts of the country.

Around the world and throughout history, the birth of a child has been attended by certain rituals. Today, with most children born in hospitals and prenatal and post-partum activities conforming to western medical guidelines, many birth rituals have disappeared. Not so long ago, many Jamaican children were born at home and subject to several different traditions. In Jamaica birth rituals were overseen by nanas or midwives, and varied from place to place, depending on race and class. All, however, reflected a deep sense of connection to, and respect for, the spirit world. Today, retentions are strongest in rural areas.
 

There are rituals surrounding preparation for birth, and after delivery. For example, to prepare for birth, the room had to have an open bible on display. The nana would anoint the mother's belly with castor oil which would later be given to both mother and child. After birth, Jamaican nanas dressed the child's navel with nutmeg. The nana also blew smoke into the child's eyes, often from an old clay pipe which these women traditionally smoked. The nana then washed her own face with rum and sometimes she herself took a stiff drink to give her “eyesight,” since the witnessing of each birth was said to affect her sight.

Following delivery, the mother and child were often isolated for eight days, during which time, the nana took control of the house. It was considered very important to protect mother and child from spiritual harm and any physical dangers that came with childbirth. The child was also washed in cold water that contained rum and a silver coin given by the father. The water and coin were later buried in the yard along with the afterbirth. The nana counted the knots on the umbilical cord to determine how many children the mother was destined to have.

Around the world and throughout history, the birth of a child has been attended by certain rituals. Today, with most children born in hospitals and prenatal and post-partum activities conforming to western medical guidelines, many birth rituals have disappeared.
Jamaican Birth Culture Practices

8. Jamaican Death Rituals

Death rituals like those related to labor and delivery were not banned during slavery and so they served as a means of cultural preservation. Unlike birth rituals, however, although death rituals have also largely been replaced by Western conventions, some traditions remain strong. In addition, as with the birth of a child, death and burial are still ways of bringing family and friends together. Indeed, today the use of new embalming technologies allows many funerals/wakes to be delayed until all family members can arrive on the island. These events can range from small to extremely large as they are also used to showcase the financial and social status of the deceased and his/her family.

Many death rituals transcend race and class and are derived from African customs. These include ensuring that the corpse is taken from the house feet first, stopping the clocks, covering mirrors in the house, wearing black, white, or purple and rearranging the furniture so that the ghost will not find the place familiar if it returns. Another African custom, still practiced in some parts of Jamaica, is the passing of a young child over the dead person three times to prevent the spirit from causing any harm to them.
 

Nine Night is one of the important Jamaican funeral ceremonies, wherein for the first eight nights, the friends and relatives of the deceased assemble at his/her home, and sing, dance, and drink all night. On the ninth night, however, only farewell songs are sung. The room of the deceased is rearranged, so that his/her spirit does not recognize it and return. A last meal is served to the spirit of the deceased, and is kept under the silk-cotton tree, which is believed to be the hiding place of the spirits.

In general, however, certain protocols were followed for burial. When digging graves, for example, rum was poured into the ground to ask permission from the earth spirit. Graves were dug east to west, and the body placed to face sunrise. Mourners would often take some dirt and with their backs turned to the grave throw it between their legs to prevent the dead from following them home. In addition, the deceased's personal belongings were also placed on the grave to pacify the dead person's spirit and prevent it from leaving the grave. These items were often broken to prevent more deaths in the family.

 Volier Maffie Johnson Nine Night with Deon Silvera and Panto Crew
 

9. Jamaican Weddings

A traditional Jamaican marriage calls for big celebrations, lavish preparations, and heavy expenses. It is a complete family affair, where both families meet formally before the wedding. Friends and relatives begin sending presents long before the “big day”. The most common gift is that of eggs, to be used for making the wedding cake. The ceremony itself is short and ends with the cutting of the cake.

Today most Jamaican weddings resemble weddings in western countries, borrowing mainly from American and English practices. Yet, they are noted (like French West Indian weddings) for the traditional rum/fruit cake served to guests and occasionally frozen for serving on the first anniversary. In the past, following Emancipation (slaves were not allowed to formally wed), the cake played a much larger role. Old time country weddings were marked by "cake parades" the day prior to the actual ceremony or on the day itself. In this they show some similarity to Scottish weddings, which involved large, elaborate processions.
 

Old time Jamaican country weddings were also characterized by "wedden godmaddas and godfaddas" who were chosen by the bride and groom respectively. In this they showed similarity to many African traditions that involved family and community in the planning and celebration. These godparents planned the entire wedding, collecting funds from parents and relatives on each side and selecting volunteers. Both godparents accompanied the couple to choose their rings, but they also had distinct individual tasks.

The first Sunday following the wedding was known as 'Turn Thanks Day'. The newly-weds and their godparents and the entire wedding party would attend service at the church where the wedding occurred and thank God (return thanks) for their marriage. The 'wedden godmadda' then took the bride's right hand, and the "wedden godfadda," the groom's, and they completed their final duty by saying in unison, "We hand you over to one another, go and live like Isaac and Rebecca."
 
Old time Jamaican country weddings were also characterized by "wedden godmaddas and godfaddas" who were chosen by the bride and groom respectively. In this they showed similarity to many African traditions that involved family and community in the planning and celebration.
An old-time Wedding near Content College, St. Andrew, in the Early 1900s

10. Live The Jamaican Experience: Jamaica Travel Tips and Assist

I live in Jamaica and love the experience of living here. So, I am eager to share the Jamaican experience with you. The Jamaican experience is captured through our people – who we are; our culture – what we do; our products – what we make; and our attractions – the country’s beauty and history.

We are introducing a new service – help and advice for you to have a memorable trip to Jamaica. We are doing this through our Jamaican business partners. Today, I am introducing one of our partners, Island Transfer and Tours. This tour company is the recipient of a 2020 Travelers' Choice award by Tripadvisor.com, which is an achievement earned over time based on feedback or reviews by travelers.
 

Island Transfer and Tours is offering a promotion with 10% off the cost of private transportation in Jamaica. Use coupon code bustour10off – book at www.itransfertourist.com.

 

So, if you are travelling to Jamaica or thinking about travelling to Jamaica and need help or advice, call me, DM me, chat with me so you can have an extraordinary vacation/work trip…

 
Fort Charles, Port Royal, Kingston - Jamaica National Heritage Trust Site
Fort Charles, Port Royal, Kingston - Jamaica National Heritage Trust Site

References

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 Jacqueline Cameron

An entrepreneur with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. Jackie is opening an e-commerce business called "Jamaica So Nice" which offers authentic Jamaican products. She speaks about it with animation, "I love the experience of living in Jamaica, and I introduce Jamaica to the world through the "Jamaican experience," which is captured in our people, culture, products and attractions."

She is a blogger, content writer, engineer, corporate planner, project manager, and musician. Jackie loves to see people transformed through her work.


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