• Jamaica Community

Preserving and Protecting the Culture: Rastafari Celebrations

“This is where we hold some of our celebrations.”

First Man leans back in his chair and gestures towards a wide, airy space: a large room with a smooth wood floor, bamboo partitions at the sides and wooden rafters above. At one end is a beautifully painted “Lion of Judah, in red and gold on a white plaster wall.

A resident of the Rastafari Indigenous Village (located near Montego Bay), First Man calls the settlement a “working village where we live,” while seeking to preserve the community’s “land-based culture” and way of life.

An important feature of any culture is the recognition of special events and the performance of rituals. First Man takes me through the full calendar of events. It has a major focus on dates related to African – specifically Ethiopian – history, besides local events.

Rastafarians recognize the Ethiopian Christmas in January, according to the ancient Julian calendar. On January 7 Rastafarian communities gather to feast, play drums, give thanks and praises, worship and reflect. At such nyabinghi meetings, men remove their hair coverings. Women keep heads covered. September 11 is celebrated as the Ethiopian New Year’s Day.

March 1 and May 5 are significant dates in Ethiopian history. On March 1, 1896, the army of Emperor Menilek II crushed an attempt by Italian forces to colonize Ethiopia. It was a huge victory, with the majority of Italy’s troops killed or captured. On May 5, 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie I returned triumphantly to Addis Ababa from exile in England. His return marked exactly five years to the day since the invading Italian army under Benito Mussolini had entered his beloved capital city. These are days of storytelling – “to ourselves and to our children” – and reflection, First Man tells me.

Other celebrations are specifically related to Emperor Haile Selassie I’s life. April 3 (1891) is the “Earth Day” or “Earthstrong” (birthday) of his wife, the Empress Menen Asfaw, who was known for her charitable works and her support for women and girls’ education. There are major festivities – with drumming, chanting, music and nyabinghi gatherings – on July 23, the Emperor’s birthday in 1892, and November 2 (1930) – the date of his coronation and that of Empress Menen. “Those are huge celebrations,” declares First Man, his eyes lighting up.

Rastafarians island-wide commemorate an especially painful period in their past – the so-called “Coral Gardens incident” of April 12, 1963 (“Bad Friday”). On the orders of Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante, around 150 Rastafarians were rounded up, beaten and abused by security forces in Coral Gardens, near Montego Bay. Eight were killed. Prime Minister Andrew Holness officially apologized for this “grave injustice” on April 4 this year. “It is a day of testimonials, memorials, and reflection,” says First Man.

A much happier day on the calendar is April 21, 1966, when Emperor Haile Selassie arrived in Jamaica for an official three-day visit – a momentous occasion for Rastafarians, who greeted him joyfully at Kingston’s international airport.

The generally acknowledged founder of the Rastafarian movement is the Jamaican Leonard P. Howell, an anti-colonial figure who joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in New York and first publicly articulated Rastafarianism in Kingston in 1933. Howell created the first Rastafarian village (Pinnacle) in 1940. His birthday on June 16 (1898) and Jamaican National Hero Marcus Garvey’s own birthday on August 17, 1887 are special dates on the Rastafarian calendar.

It’s important for children to be a part of these celebrations, First Man stresses. He calls the Rastafarian Indigenous Village “a cultural space. A place to preserve culture, family. Preserve, and protect.”

A visit to Rastafari Indigenous Village on any day provides a fascinating experience, but visiting on one of these holidays can make your visit even more special.