Christmas in New Providence, in the bygone era of 1884, was different in some ways and similar in many ways, to what we know today. We decorated Christmas trees. Coconut trees though, there were no imported pine trees yet. We sang. We danced. We had John Canoe. And we shared presents with one and all.

It had only been 50 years since the British West Indies emancipation, only 19 years since the American Civil War over the question of slavery, and incredibly in Cuba, slavery had not yet ended. It would not officially end until October 1886. All of these historical events significantly impacted the Bahamas in one particular way. Population levels rose sharply. The ethnic and racial mix were changing. Rising population levels were affecting the economy, mortality rates, food supplies, housing and employment. Both White and Negro were finding their way, in increasing numbers, either by accident or design to the Bahamas. Liberated slaves bound for Cuba and those who had escaped to freedom from the United States or emigrated after the war, now all made up the negro population of the Bahamas, mostly on New Providence.  More Americans, Europeans, South Americans, Haitians, French, and British were emigrating as well.  The vast majority of the people who made up the now negro majority, were incredibly poor. In fact, the majority of whites themselves, were far from even middle class.

All the problems of the colony were seemingly forgotten though, for just one day, in the year.

Christmas in the Bahamas, in 1884, was very much like Christmas in Victorian England. There were the well-to-do families, and the poor families. There were the many raggedly dressed hungry children, like the fictional Oliver Twist, who spent their days on the streets begging. With the exception of cold and hot weather, both the mother country England and its colony, New Providence, were equally brutal to the poor who lived in them on celebrations days like Christmas Day.

December 25th was a time for celebrations, a time for singing, a time for forgetting about work and indulging in sips from a bottle of spirits.

From an intrepid adventurer, writing for The New York Times in January 1885,  we get a glimpse into our customs and traditions which existed, at Christmas in 1884.



“NASSAU, BAHAMAS, DEC. 26 – Even down here in the land of warm weather Christmas comes once a year, and is as kindly received as if we were hovering over blazing fires in the North. It is a trifle odd to sit out on the piazza fanning yourself on Christmas morning, but that feeling soon wears off, and you learn to enjoy the change. Every small boy on the island knew that Christmas was coming, and looked forward to some acknowledgement of his existence in the shape of a present. The little coloured boys had no hesitation about asking American visitors for presents, and larger coloured folks came about with the startling announcement:

“I’se come for my Christmas boss!”

Anybody who accepted all the drafts made on him by his sable friends for presents would have a flat pocketbook to-day. In the absence of any inducement to celebrate the Fourth of July, the Nassau boy shoots of crackers on Christmas and make all the racket possible. Bands strolls about, making (sometimes) sweet music and looking for presents from their victims. The main street is crowded, everybody is in his best clothes, and nobody is allowed to forget that the holidays have really arrived. All work is thrown to the dogs. “Tomorrow’s Christmas, boss when our blessed Saviour was born,” was the invariable answer to any request for services. 

On Christmas Eve the ladies took the gardener into the coconut grove, and presently came back with a young coconut tree 8 or 9 feet high, spreading out fully that much in diameter, and making, with its graceful feathery leaves, as beautiful as a Christmas tree as we have set up anywhere in the wide world. It was put in a corner of the dining room, mounted in a barrel, and nearly filled up one end of the room. There had been mysterious excuses to town through the day, and before bedtime the young coconut glistened on every branch with presents for everybody about the place. The boys who work about the dining room and kitchen were glad of a chance to go home to spend Christmas Eve, and when they were all safely out of the way the ladies made that coconut tree sprout with such blooms as few coconut trees have ever borne. There were mysterious packages for “White” and “John” and “George” and all the rest, besides a few larger articles for larger people. It must have been a novelty of dressing a coconut tree for Christmas, I think, that keep the ladies at work at it so long, and the beauty of having all the doors and windows wide open, and the brightest of moons making all the outdoors as light as day. There was singing everywhere. In all the houses down the road, many of them hidden in foliage, people were singing Christmas songs. 

Many a dusky Nassau wife or mother, many a head of a family without a dollar in the world, sat in the doorway and sang Christmas songs as contentedly as if there were no such thing as poverty in the world. The spirit of Christmas took hold of everything and everybody and drove away, for 24 hours at least, all thought of care and trouble and work.”

Christmas Day 1884


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)

Scenes of Bay Street on Christmas Day.  The festivities on Bay Street is called a carnival and masquerade because the coloured people are dressed up in homemade costumes. Before getting into town by horse and carriage as vehicles were yet to be invented, the article makes mention of the large crowds along the way and how everyone wished them a “Merry Christmas, boss!”


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)

Mention is made of a Bahamian who originally came from the Congo, along with large group of liberated slaves in 1862. What the writers says about the Captain of the slave ship is an absolutely priceless statement for 1884. 


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)

The writer is staying at the most fashionable hotel in Nassau, the Royal Victoria. He calls it the centre of civilisation in the Bahamas. 


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)


(The New York Times, Sunday January 11, 1885)

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