The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson


Reflections on Father Christmas

By: Will Johnson

Arriving at Saba.

Approaching Saba by sea.

When I told the ladies at the cash registers at the supermarket at Maho that I was going away for a month, they exclaimed; “But what is going to happen to the Sea Grape Tree when you are away? Mind don’t you let the Sea Grape Tree dry up. I promised them that I would try and take care of the Sea Grape Tree even while I was away.

Here I am in the middle of the Atlantic following in leisure the route of Christopher Columbus. The captain just came on and announced that today December 9th, 2008 we were at 23.53 North Latitude and 41.59 West Longitude. We had traveled 1368 miles from La Palma and there were 1227 miles remaining to Sint Maarten. This morning at 8.15 AM the ship had passed the halfway mark to Sint Maarten.

Who told me to then go on the internet where I was summoned by Ms. Lisa Burnett of The Daily Herald to write something for the Christmas issue of The Herald.

Volney Hassell

Tradition Christmas Music. Left to right. Aileen Johnson, “Bungie” on the drum, Agatha Peterson and Mrs. Melanie Johnson on the guitars.

Nothing was further from my mind as I sat there on the balcony of my stateroom, contemplating life, while delving into the lives of the great philosophers. We learn about how they lived, but at this stage of contemplation on my own life, and with the end of another year in sight, I was more interested in finding out how some of these great men died.

I consider myself as a writer for the poor and I would like to pass on these tidbits of information so that one and all can have access to information which may prompt them to delve further into the lives of famous people.

Socrates, considered the most famous of the ancient philosophers, at the age of seventy was condemned to take poison by the government of Athens for corrupting the youth with his crazy ideas.

His most famous student Plato describes how one of the wisest men to have ever lived faced his last moments after having swallowed the poison given to him while surrounded by his followers. His students informed him that his legs were getting colder. Plato then informs us as follows:

“And then Socrates felt them himself, and said; “When the poison reaches the heart that will be the end.” He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face (for he had covered himself up) and said, – they were his last words – “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? ”The debt shall be paid,” said Crito; “Is there anything else?” There was no answer to this question: but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were set and Crito closed his eyes and mouth. Such was the end of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, the most just, and the best of all the men whom I have ever known.”(399 B.C.)

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Masquerade on Boxing Day or Second Day Christmas.

The reason why this speaks to me is having grown up with yard fowls and knowing the importance of having a good rooster fattening up for the feast of Christmas, I can understand that Socrates would be concerned about paying Ascelepius.

Plato met his end in a more pleasant way at the age of eighty. One of his pupils, facing that great abyss called marriage invited the Master to his wedding feast. Plato came, rich with his eighty years, and joined the merry-makers gladly. But as the hours laughed themselves away, the old philosopher retired into a quiet corner of the house, and sat down on a chair to win a little sleep. In the morning when the feast was over, the tired revelers came to wake him. They found that during the night, quietly and without ado, he had passed from a little sleep to an endless one. All Athens followed him to the grave.(Will Durant; The Story of Philosophy).

While crossing the Atlantic, day after day, looking out on a seemingly endless ocean I had time to contemplate on life. I came to the conclusion that at the end of the day we are like a tiny raindrop being dragged along by the mighty hurricane of life. At the end of life’s journey, when a person dies he is like that tiny raindrop. Having gone through the trials and tribulations of life, the good times and the bad, his end is like that of the tiny raindrop falling into the great ocean of life. His brief and lonely existence ceases, and he becomes one again with the great ocean of being.

And now let us go on to tell something about Christmas as we used to know it. In former times, the Christmas season revolved around the preparations for the Holy Mass on Christmas Eve.

Carl Anslyn at Schotzenhoek planatation.

William Carl  Anslyn owner of Schotzenhoek Estate on St. Euststatiusfeeding his yard fowls.

The pirates, who settled Saba, had no time to think about Christmas. Whatever traditions they may have had back in Europe had been surrendered for a life of removing the wealth of Spain to their small Caribbean hideouts. Their main concern was wealth preservation from other pirates and governments. In interviews with many old timers they could only recall the Mass and the decorations in their respective churches. I had the privilege to know people who had been born a long time ago. The mixed race family of the Every’s from “Under-the-Hill” in Windwardside could take you back far. The mother Mrs. Elizabeth Every born Peterson died in 1954 at the age of 102. I was twelve when she died and had often visited her. Both her legs had been amputated at a time when there was no anesthesia. Her daughters Lilly and Johanna, died in their nineties. Lilly told me once that her “Papie” had died young. He was only 84 when he died.

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Miss Esther Peterson at the age of 103.

Another old person was “Miss Hettie” (Esther Peterson) a white woman from Windwardside. She died in 1970 at the age of 104. Prim and proper Miss Hettie told me once that there wasn’t enough money to buy panties, much less to buy presents at Christmas. These old timers remembered stories from their grandparents going back to the seventeen hundreds. They talked about Father Christmas, whoever that was. Santa Claus was imported from the States by the old sailors I guess.

What they remembered was that people used the produce of the land to celebrate Christmas with. Sweet potatoes were always plentiful, and so they made sweet potato pudding. At this point I called out to the amusement of the tourists around me to my wife to ask her how Dan Quayle spelled potato.

The same story goes for pumpkin pudding. Another Christmas tradition was pigeon pea soup. If you planted pigeon peas in April, you could reap them by Christmas. And if you had a yard fowl, you could bake it in an old stone oven. The few wealthier ones could bake a pig at Christmas time and sell parts of it. No one on Saba was that wealthy that they could afford a whole pig for themselves. Eggnog was a traditional drink on Old Years night.


My nephew Greg Johnson and Ernest Hassell baking a pig at Christmas. I had this old oven moved by Ernest from Behind The Ridge to Windward Side a few years ago.

At the beginning of the nineteen hundreds many Sabans were employed as sailors and captains in the merchant marine of the United States. Captain Irvin Holm (born 30-11-1891 died 1984) used to tell me that every so many years gangs of the young men would come down from the States around November and stay for several months at a time. He said that would be one big party as they would bring their savings with them and spend it on their families and in having a good time.

In those days the wealthy white families of The Bottom had the means to exchange gifts at Christmas. They later moved to Barbados. Some were married to women from there and had family relations going back through the centuries.

When I was a boy, if anything had changed it was not much different than in my grandparents’ time. My great-grandfather had the choice once a year, after being forced to clean the public road, to choose between five cents in cash or the equivalent in rum or tobacco. The rest of the year he was on his own. My grandfather James Horton Simmons used to get sixty-five cents a day. He had a flock of daughters to boot which was considered a disaster in those days. Girls could not help you farm or fish of course. When his cow fell to her death over the cliff at Hell’s Gate, Horton declared that it would have been better that he had lost his wife as he could get another one of those, but where was he to get another cow. Life was hard back then.

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My brother Thomas Eric Johnson milking his cow.

My father was a foreman when the roads were being built. When he could get work his pay was two guilders and fifty cents a day. In 1955 when I went away to school he made a grand total of three hundred and sixty four guilders for the year. In his lifetime he never made more than two hundred guilders in any given month. So you can see why I grew up questioning life. Asking why some had so much and others nothing. The only two books in my library which survived my years as a bachelor are “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Although I am much better off than my ancestors, after experiencing that kind of poverty in your youth, you are never really rich.

As a boy I remember reading that famous Christmas poem;

“T’was the night before Christmas

And all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hopes that St.Nicholas soon would be there.”

I don’t know why but after having read it, my sister Sadie made it a tradition that we should read that story at Christmas time. We had no shoes of course much less stockings to hang by the chimney. But when you are young you can dream up wonderful things.

The people coming back from the United States started the Christmas tree tradition. We used to check out one in the bush early, and hope that no one else saw it. The tree was decorated with the silver paper from the cigarette packages as well as some coloured cloth ribbons. The candles were lit on the tree and carefully guarded as we all lived in wooden houses back then. Being an altar boy the priest used to give me a present at Christmas. The most I can remember from my altar boy days was learning Latin from Father Meesters and burying a whole lot of people. I was always serving at someone’s funeral, so that if you had buried twenty people for the year, you felt that the very least the priest could do was to give you a present at Christmas.

In 1930 Mr. Kenneth Bolles, wrote about Saba as it was back then. Saba did not have any plantations as such so the number of African slaves was one third that of the European part of the population. My neighbours in the black community such as Theresita Rose and her daughter Margareth Rose (Muggie) used to tell stories about Christmas, also people like Joe Maxwell who lived in an old thatched hut well decorated with pictures of all the saints and with a dirt floor hard as a rock. On her tombstone Muggie is listed as a Johnson. She said that she had lived with the Johnson family since she was a little girl and until her death in her nineties so she could lay claim to the name, and her wish was honoured.

The black families lived in small settlements on the outside of the villages. In Windwardside this used to be a place called “The Alley” where the Chinese restaurant is now, and the “English Quarter”. As a boy I lived close to the Alley, next to Leon and Charles Hassell, Theresita Rose, Agnes and Joe Maxwell and so on. Later on we had our house at Behind-the-Ridge dismantled and moved it to the English Quarter.

At Christmas time you could hear the drums rolling from English Quarter. Evered Jackson had two drums, a small one for private entertainment and the big drum for special events like Christmas or when I won the election in 1971. Evered and his sisters Lima, Reyanita and others had been our neighbours at Behind-The Ridge and Evered later on moved to English Quarter and was our neighbour there as well. At Christmas some of the English Quarter people (not Evered he was too proud for that), would form spontaneous bands and head to the other villages playing the drum.

On Boxing Day, or second day Christmas, the white men would dress up and masquerade accompanied by “The Occasionals”. They would go from house to house in Hell’s Gate and the Windwardside. There would be a little dancing and much drinking at each house. The drinks were rum based, such as Saba Spice, Guava-Berry, Beauperthuy punch, sorrel and so on. (By the way in my garden I have a nice set of sorrel this year ready to reap but I won’t put any rum in it.)

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The old Roman Catholic Church as Hell’s Gate.

At Christmas time the farmers took their hoes off the handle so to speak. And so those who lived by the sweat of their brows could for a brief moment enjoy a little respite from the harsh lessons of survival on our small Caribbean homeland, and remember Christmases past.

Despite our lack of land still Saba proved to be a place of refuge for the many who returned to the island to escape the Great Depression. As we are all concerned about another great depression at this time of year we should all look back to the days of our ancestors who not only survived but by the sweat of their brows built up an island which many from large countries all over the world can now come here and enjoy.

As old Father Meesters would have advised let me pass on in Latin the story of the five talents:  “Domine, quinque talenta tradidsti mihi: ecce alia quinque superlucratus sum. Euge serve fidelis, quia in pauca fuisti fidelis, supra multa te constituam, intra in gaudium Domini tui.”

Happy Christmas to all and May the New Year be a blessed one for all of our people.

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