Christmas Bram is a well-known festivity practiced in Belize. It is most widely associated with Creole Communities such as Gales Point Manatee Village, Belize River Valley communities, and Belize City. Rooted in Belize’s colonial period, it can be traced back to the early 1700’s, when enslaved Africans were brought to extract logwood, mahogany, cedar, and other timber from Belize’s forests. Camp workers returned home to their families from camp during the Christmas period, which served as the greatest opportunity for communal recreation.
In Gales Point Manatee village, where it is most practiced now, the Bram commences with the sound of the two-sided Gombay drum or the Sambai drum which signals villagers to gather at the northern end of the village. Bram is accompanied by the lively Brokdong music, a Belizean musical genre that incorporates European and popular instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, banjo and guitar; and African rhythms produced by traditional local instruments such as the jawbone of a donkey, glass bottles (pint-bottle-pan-table) and fork-and-grater, among other instruments.
In addition to these instrumental accompaniments, songs that are orally passed down by the community complement the parade. These songs are often in a call-and-response style, reminiscent of sub-Saharan African cultures. The themes of these songs reflect community oral histories and narratives, community issues, personal and family relationships, and are oftentimes manifested in double entendre and subtle innuendos to mask the themes from young observers, outsiders and those being critiqued.
With this musical accompaniment, the ‘Bramming,’ as it is referred to, goes from house to house with community members dancing and singing along the way. Food and drink, including Christmas cakes, rum popo (Belizean eggnog), and local berry and fruit wines, are offered at homes, reinforcing the community spirit.
Eventually, friends, family and visitors all join in the singing and dancing until late evening when a bonfire is prepared for the Sambai Dance. The Sambai is a ritual dance done only in Gales Point Village. Many believe its enactment is linked to lunar and harvest beliefs, courtship practices and fertility beliefs. As the fire dies down, so do the day’s activities until it commences once again on the 26th December.
Transmission and Safeguarding Practices
While Bram and Bramming were once prevalent in all Creole communities, both urban and rural, it has mostly persisted in its traditional manifestation in rural communities. Brokdong music is still very common among River Valley Communities, where informal oral transmission of songs and dance occurs, and the music and dance are prominently incorporated at village festivals and community social events.
There is considerable concern from musicians due to the decrease in popularity of the Brokdong genre among young people. Many of the more traditional instruments are either difficult to find, or there are no musicians who have opted to learn from older players. Due to largely informal transmission practices, this has led to a limited number of players of the mouth organ, jawbone of a donkey, fork and grater, pint-bottle-pan-table, among other traditional instruments.
With regards to the Sambai and African drums, efforts are currently being made to transmit the traditional knowledge of making and playing these drums. Organizations such as the National Institute of Culture and History, National Kriol Council of Belize, as well as groups like Drums not Guns, and the Maroon Kriol Drum School have implemented Kriol drumming workshops in communities across Belize.
The Christmas Bram as enacted in Gales Point Manatee is the most viable manifestation of the cultural celebration. The community puts considerable effort into maintaining the practice from year to year through continued enactment, and young people acquire the knowledge of the music, dance and practice through passive observation and emulation. The community has also benefited from interventions from the National Institute of Culture and History, the National Kriol Council and other organizations.
Continuity of the Christmas Bram
While in the past the Bram has been characteristic of Christmas time in many Creole communities, today, it is most widely associated with Gales Point Manatee Village. Many believe that the relative isolation of Gales Point has contributed to the continuity of traditions such as the Bram. As easier access in and out of the community may become a reality in the foreseeable future, it remains to be seen how this will allow for the development of the traditional practice. The community, however, seems confident in its continued practice as it is seen as a time where they all come together to reaffirm their collective cultural identity and social ties to each other and their families. This is also evidenced as those who have migrated away from the village, make an annual pilgrimage on Christmas and Boxing Day to join in the Bramming and merriment.
As urban Belize City embraced less traditional Christmas celebrations, the Bram has been relegated to a term that now refers to any sort of social gathering and festivity where local music, dance, and foods are featured. This allows patrons of these events and activities to maintain connectivity with the past, reminisce on the activity as it formerly was, and reinterpret how it continues to be manifested and presented in contemporary society.
Though the Brokdong, music and dance, can occur without the Bram, the Bram cannot occur without Brokdong music. Due to the lack of transmission and safeguarding practices dedicated to Brokdong music, and competing popular musical genres, it remains to be seen how the music of Brokdong will continue to form part of the wider Belizean society.
Associated Cultural Forms, Traditions and Knowledge
Brokdong Music; Drum Making; Local Wine Production; Sambai; Traditional Culinary Practices
Spaces for Enactment
(What places, spaces and locations are integral to its practice?)
- Private Residences in Gales Point Manatee Village
- Streets of Gales Point Manatee Village
Communities and Groups Involved
- Gales Point Manatee Village
- Maroon Kriol Drum School
- National Kriol Council
Other Sources of Information
Contributors to this Article (including Belize ICH Network Members, National Institute of Culture and History Staff, and community informants who participated in the Inventorying Process): Kevin Andrewin, Randalf Andrewin, Nancy Bailey, Michael Bradley, Rolando Cocom, Nigel Encalada, Sheryl Fuller, Alita Gentle, Manuel Lizarraga, Myrna Manzanares, Phylicia Pelayo, Giovanni Pinelo, Linette Sabido, Esau Slusher, Selene Solis, Emmeth Young, Gales Point Manatee Community, National Kriol Council