“Carnival was a mistake!”
The statement was made by local historian, teacher and social activist Washington ‘Washie’ Archibald, who explained that one of the biggest mistakes made by St. Kitts is the “importation” of Carnival which now overshadows the folklore which is indigenous to the people of St. Kitts.
As explained by Archibald, during the days of slavery, a traditional St. Kitts Christmas celebration saw slaves receiving leeway to leave the plantations and enjoying themselves before resuming their duties in January.
“During slavery days, the Christmas celebration was the only time in the year when the slaves got some days of freedom from the cane field, so they used to use that freedom to enjoy themselves. They were free to visit the various estates around and to do their performances, to sing their songs, to drink their rum and enjoy themselves. It was the only freedom they used to enjoy after a whole year of working in the cane field… that was their season of abandonment.
“It was an avenue of freedom and so it became a tradition that even though we were free from plantation slavery, people were still working in the fields, and so Christmas was the time when they left the plantation and came to town and performed in Basseterre and they would go from village to village in the streets.”
He however added that carnival, which was imported to St. Kitts in the early 1950s, is actually a celebration used by the Catholics as a period of abandonment and freedom from all restrictions, either prior to or following the Lenten Season.
“Carnival was an import. We had a couple of people here from Trinidad, Grenada and those catholic countries. As you know, carnival is really a catholic celebration. The Roman Catholic countries, they are the countries which hold carnival because the carnival was supposed to be a period of abandonment, a period of freedom of all restraint. During the Lenten period, which is a period of abstinence and self-denial, the Catholics don’t eat red meat, they don’t go to dances...they try to avoid alcohol and so on.
“So, just before then, catholic countries – and Trinidad used to be a catholic country – would have their period of abandonment before the Lenten period came. So, if Lent is coming in the next couple of weeks, this is the time when you enjoy yourselves and have a big parade, and the dancing and the eating and drinking and so on. And then you stop on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when the Lenten season begins for the Roman Catholics. So you have all this revelry and this abandonment and self-indulgence and you stop it just in time for the period of abstinence and self-denial to begin on Ash Wednesday.”
He said the importation of carnival gave rise to contention between those who wanted to preserve the traditional Kittitian-styled Christmas celebration and those who were pro-carnival.
“Because we had some people here who had grown up in Trinidad and Grenada, the Windward Islands, we decided to hold a carnival in St. Kitts. Carnival is not a native of St. Kitts; it has no tradition in St. Kitts. Our tradition in St. Kitts at Christmas is the Christmas celebration. But the people who imported carnival, I don’t think they knew the history of Christmas and so they tried to see if they could replace Christmas with carnival, and that is why it took so long for carnival to really catch on. I don’t think up to now it has caught on.
“In 1950, Basil Henderson and a Superintendent of Police named Major Alfonso, who was a really outgoing man, got the people who were born overseas together and launched the first carnival. Gradually, it collapsed...people lost interest in it. And then Billy Herbert’s father, Mr. William Herbert, he was very much against the carnival. He was for the preservation of the old St. Kitts kind of Christmas. So, he was at cross-purposes to the carnival committee and he formed his own Christmas festivities committee and they had a sort of confrontation between the Christmas Festivities Committee and the Carnival Committee. The Christmas Festivities were run by Herbert and Carnival was supported by the government. So there were these two parties trying to claim the attention of people at Christmas.
"The contention was ended by C. A. Paul Southwell, a Dominican by birth, who “took it upon himself to abolish those two celebrations and organise a national carnival and the government became the main sponsor. That was 40 years ago.”
The days of slavery and the post-slavery days, Archibald explained, were filled with traditional folklore including masquerades, the bull troupes, clowns and the mock-a-jumbies. He noted however that in present day, the carnival phenomenon and hype significantly dwarf these traditional activities.
“People who run carnival don’t attach a lot of importance to the folklore. Folklore is a big tradition. The Christmas Tree performances is really the traditional Christmas that belongs to St. Kitts. Carnival does not belong to St. Kitts. Carnival was imported from Trinidad…the Carnival is foreign to us and it took a long time to catch on because of its very foreign nature. And what they should have done was to keep on fighting to preserve the original Christmas…people do not destroy early traditions and replace them with imported ones. That’s the mistake they made.”