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Parang

TRINIDAD — It is early December and already the air is redolent with the aroma of rum-soaked black/fruit cake baking in ovens and the sound of parang – Spanish-influenced holiday music – blasting on car radios and home stereos. Women dance to the music while they put homemade wine of all flavors to set and sew curtains to match their new decoration schemes; men sing along while dressing dingy home exteriors in fresh, technicolor coats of paint.

An amalgam of sights, smells, and sounds that define a “Trini” Christmas – a unique mix that is unlikely to be found anywhere else.

That is why the thousands of Trinidad & Tobago expats living in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York, and other cities across the United States find themselves pining for home or leaving cold climes for the balmy temperatures of the twin-island nation during the holidays.

“There’s no Christmas like a Trini Christmas,” said Angelyn John, who returned to the Caribbean country after living abroad.

Sorrel

John and others say a big part of what they miss is the food. While some dishes can be reproduced in their new locales, key elements are often missing – like the banana leaves used to wrap and steam pastelles, a holiday staple of cornmeal patties stuffed with ground meat, capers, raisins, herbs and spicy seasonings.

As with the American Thanksgiving tradition, Trini tables often groan under the weight of food at Christmas. And the drinks – such as homemade ginger beer; sorrel, which is made from the petals of the sorrel plant boiled with cinnamon and other spices; but especially alcoholic beverages, such as rum punches, ponche de creme (a sumptuous drink similar to eggnog) and homemade wines – flow freely.

Pastelle

Food and liquor in all its forms are celebrated in soca parang, the more secular version of holiday music, which fuses the indigenous Trini artform of soca – a mashup of calypso, cadence and the traditions of Afro- and Indo-Caribbean music – with parang, which is defined by the use of several stringed and percussion instruments. Traditional parang music – a vestige of T&T’s Spanish colonial past – is heavily played and celebrates the religious aspect of Christmas in the Spanish language.

It is difficult to celebrate Christmas without that soundtrack, several Trinbagonians said.

“Thanks to technology I can listen to live radio from home and hear my parang,” said Melinda Samuel, who is spending her second Christmas in New Jersey this year.

But, Samuel said, she will miss her favorite aspect of a Trini Christmas – going out to parang or parranda. In this traditional ritual, parranderos – bands of singers and musicians – rove from house to house in the night, waking residents and singing Christmas music and partaking of food and drink into the wee hours of the morning. The terms have also come to define the act of visiting the homes of family, neighbors and acquaintances during the holidays, making Christmas more of a community celebration.

Parang

“It is this sense of community that really defines Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago,” said Brian Khan, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher.”From Christmas Eve people start appearing at your door looking to celebrate – to sing, dance, eat, drink and generally have a good time.”

Khan gave an example of four men in their 20s who hold a free party for their neighborhood every Christmas – cooking and providing drinks, giving toys to the children and hiring a deejay for entertainment. “That’s the spirit of Christmas to me,” he said.

Missing all that is a blow, Samuel said. “I feel sad,” she said of not being home for the holidays, “but remembrance of those times – spending time with my family, going house to house and paranging, decorating the house with new curtains, anticipating parangers – brings some kind of happiness.”