I enjoyed “Masqueraders, Musicians and the Old Time St. Croix Christmas Festival” by Dr. Karen C. Thurland in a variety of ways, to the point that I am begging you to stop turning the fungi, put out the coal pot, hush the children and get to a bookstore before it closes to obtain your copy. While the book has not yet won an award for being the best cultural and anthropological work of the year, it is culturally rich in its historical concept of facilitating order in the Virgin Islands, emphasizing its largest island, Saint Croix.
The book is divided into 15 sections beginning with “Masquerade Memories,” where the author becomes a storyteller and interviewer displaying the memories of Mrs. Iris Williams Browne of Watergate. Here Browne discusses the musicians who played in the scratch bands, even a one-person band who played with his kerosene pan and made attempts to sing in Spanish based on his stints in the Dominican Republic.
The author colorfully paints a picture of the joy that Browne found after leaving a church service in Christiansted on Christmas Eve when hearing and watching the scratch bands gallivanting down the road. They performed in front of any home and would be offered sweet bread, ham, and of course, quavaberry drink. All of Browne’s historical accounts are accompanied by relevant pictures of the day by the renowned photographer Fritz Henle and the Saint Croix Landmark Society.
In this same part of the book, there is an impressive illustration by Axel Ovesen of Masqueraders in front of the Government House in the early 1900s. The women are dolled up in fancy gowns promenading with their dance partners. The energy can be felt through dated photography as the Danish style of architecture competes for attention.
Under the subheading “Masquerader and Culture Bearer,” Thurland interviews Asta Williams, a masquerader born in Estate Concordia. In this unit, Williams shared memories of going outside of their Frederiksted home before daybreak and waiting to see the mocko jumbies, the Wild Indians prancing, and Marshall and Braffith, who were not only fishermen but also vibrant dancers, entertaining and keeping the bad children in line as they were frightened by the African-based cultural characters costumed like that of “Old Man Beggar” of Liberia. After all, during the earlier years, it was not the local police that maintained behavior order but the aforementioned holiday characters.
This writer would be derelict not to mention the interview of Dr. Stanley Jacobs of Stanley Jacobs and the Ten Sleepless Knight in the section “Culture Bearer and Quelbe Musician” as his work remains foundational when reading and studying Quelbe music, Quadrille dance, and almost always the highlight of Crucian parties, entertainment and parades. Jacobs talks about his early musical development and love for Crucian Culture, Customs, and traditions. He began music studies at six with the guitar before being introduced to the flute, steel pan, and squash.
Of course, Thurland interviewed attorney/historian Harold Willocks who made it clear that it has yet to be known how the Christmas Festival began. However, he indicated that the first organized festival probably started during the final years of the Danish-ruled government before World War I, and the celebration was from December 26th through January 1st. She also received the basics of her research information from both parents born and reared in the Virgin Islands.
This worthwhile scholarship includes a valuable and necessary glossary and a working bibliography, especially helpful to tourists and new island residents.
Read “Masqueraders, Musicians and the Old Time St. Croix Christmas Festival” for yourself, and I guarantee you will jump up with joy like the Crucians!
Book Review by O.D. Alexander
O.D. Alexander is a retired Saint Croix Central High School music teacher. He has also taught at the Julius E. Sprauve School and Guy Benjamin School on Saint John. He can be reached at email@example.com