Celebrating the holidays, the Gullah way

One writer recounts her favorite holiday traditions — sweetgrass decorations, oyster perloo and hummingbird cake

Published December 21, 2020 1:00PM (EST)

Fir branches, pinecones and berries (Getty Images)
Fir branches, pinecones and berries (Getty Images)

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My favorite childhood holiday memories are filled with large gatherings, laughter, and many, many overlapping voices. This holiday season, to fill that void, I've decided to be even more deliberate about how I celebrate, decorate, and preserve traditions.

Holiday traditions in my family have always centered around my Gullah heritage. Preserving our Gullah Geechee culture—rich in West African influences on everything from cuisine, farming, and fishing traditions to beliefs and practices—has always been a key component of our heritage, with customs passed down through generations of family.

As a Lowcountry native, for me one of those values is a strong connection with land and nature. When I was growing up, my grandfather had a hog farm, and today, my father grows vegetables on the same family land, which has supported our family in so many ways, providing nourishment and enjoyment. This connection with the land, along with the temperate winters we enjoy in South Carolina, meant outdoor celebrations were the norm. They were also often necessary due to the size of my large family. I couldn't imagine things any other way.

* * *

Today, the Gullah Geechee people largely live in Georgia and South Carolina, the Sea Islands of the American South, but our presence here dates back to the 18th century, when the land across these states was transformed into rice fields by our ancestors, who came from the Rice Coast in Africa. These farmers brought over their cultivation and irrigation experience, making rice farming a viable, valuable industry in America. After emancipation, these African farmers, and especially the women, were able to continue to grow and cultivate the rice for their families.

Today, the Gullah diet is still based heavily on rice, and no holiday meal is ever complete without it. In most parts of the South, collard greens and cornbread is a staple of a holiday meal, but in the Lowcountry, I grew up eating collard greens with rice. The best holidays were always when Dad grew his own collard greens on our family land and reserved the best batch for us, following the first frost.

With rice as a key ingredient, holiday dishes that regularly make an appearance are oyster perloored rice with sausage, and sautéed shrimp and rice. Other dishes showcase foods from the coastal area, including fresh fish and shellfish, game, and grits. Black longshoremen have a long history, from well before the Civil War, when Black men were allowed to take jobs on the docks and wharves. My own family has a history of being longshoremen and working on the water, and fishing and crabbing are still how many of our people feed and support their families—and create memories over the water.

Growing up, I watched my family cook Lowcountry favorites, with all the smells, sights, and sounds that made the holidays so special. There is nothing quite like sweet potato bread pudding at Thanksgiving. Or hummingbird cake and homemade biscuits for Christmas. I have so many memories of meals being prepared in my grandmother's and great-aunt's kitchens, where I would try to sneak a peek into the kitchen, even though the golden rule was to stay out of the room while the women were cooking. And making trips to my Aunt Shug's home in Berkeley County, South Carolina, and getting her special okra soup and sweet potato pie that she always had available for her favorite great-nieces and nephews to devour.

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With kids of my own now, I've taken on the role, previously assumed by my elders, of passing on some of these traditions, like showcasing our cultural experiences as a part of my holiday decorations. I love adding elements of sweetgrass baskets, for instance—an ancient craft with direct roots in traditional basketmaking in Africa—to my home decor, whether that means displaying heirloom pieces or finding representations in stationery or art collections, even in the Christmas wreaths I have this year.

Handmade crafts and art have always been an important aspect of Gullah culture. They don't just perform the role of preserving Gullah history; they're also an accessible place for those outside the community to engage with the culture. I choose to collect Gullah art, books, and stationery as a way to preserve my heritage and to have heirlooms to pass on to my kids as they make their own traditions into adulthood.

I love bringing the color indigo into my holiday decor, mixing it with different patterns: orange or pink for Thanksgiving or plaids for Christmas. Indigo was a significant cash crop on the Sea Islands and remains a staple for decor in the region, all of which traces its roots to the Gullah community. Indigo is also important to me personally because my father, just like many other Gullah men and women, joined the Navy. Military service has a rich legacy in the Gullah community, starting all the way from Congressman Robert Smalls until today, with Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs being a staple at South Carolina State University. I have fond memories of watching my father and his fellow cousins who joined the Navy connecting over leaving the Lowcountry, but always coming back home for the holidays, their families, and the food.

The holidays may look very different this year, but that doesn't mean we can't "gather" with friends and family. When I was growing up, the backdrop was always our family property, with food grown on our farms, and most importantly with our elders and the next generations present to find ways to keep the traditions alive. This year, technology will play the medium, but we will still find ways to keep traditions alive. At my own home, we will be rewatching the holiday special of Gullah Gullah Island, my favorite childhood show. And like every year before it, there will be good food, even if it means just dropping it off on the porches of family or begging some of my aunts to share their secret chicken bog or crab and grits recipes to make together—even as we stay apart.

By Michiel Perry

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