Twirling skirts, bright eyes, steel drums and johnnycakes… this is Sint Maarten’s Day! Upon hearing about this holiday, my first question was whether the day celebrated the island’s heritage or the actual feast day of Saint Martin. As it turns out, it celebrates both. According to the story of the island’s earliest known history, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon our island paradise on November, 11, 1483–Saint Martin’s Feast Day– and named the island in honor of the day. Today, Saint Martin the man is more or less ignored, and the island people celebrate their heritage and homeland.
Ben and I had been looking forward to this day since we landed here because American University of the Caribbean gives its students Sint Maarten’s Day off classes. I was also looking forward to the day-long cultural celebration in Philipsburg, the capitol district. We took a bus in the early afternoon to join the throngs of people in the streets of the capitol. The air was absolutely electric with energy!
I immediately felt a little out of place– virtually everyone else was rocking red, white, and blue t-shirts; most of them even had patriotic designs! I was wearing a green skirt with a pink top. Oops. We went in search of Saint Maarten t-shirts. I could see that many of the stores in the shopping district were selling such apparel, but all the stores were closed, as per the law of the land. We finally found some in Festival Village, but all they had left were XXLs. “They run small,” offered the lady at the booth apologetically. I said no thanks, but bought a Sint Maarten flag.
Festival Village, a large, purple outdoor complex on Pond Island, was filled with shouts, laughter, bubbles, and flashing lights. The kids were having a heyday on the inflatable bouncers! Their parents enjoyed fried food and bottles of soda at gaily decorated food stands around the edge of the complex. Under a canopy, domino players determinedly focused on their annual tournament.
The schedule said the parade would start at 3:00, so we made our way through the streets, under the bunting-covered palm trees, to where the parade would begin. We waved at a recording drone that hovered overhead and watched the crowd fill up the streets.
The crowd thickened around us and began to build upward– people appeared in second-story windows, on balconies, and on their daddies’ shoulders. We smiled and greeted people we know as they pressed through the crowd to their favorite parade-watching spot.
Ten minutes passed, half an hour, fifty minutes, an hour. Finally, we heard the sound of steel drums and dancing feet. True to Sint Maarten, the parade started on “island time.” Nobody seemed bothered. We crowded closer together and strained to catch a glimpse of the first dancers.
Sint Maarten is home to people of many heritages, so cultural St. Maarten dance is diverse. My favorite were the women in hoop skirts who twirled and whirled down the street. Click on the thumbnails below to get a better look at the photos. So much color, so much movement! The women danced to the rhythm of the drumbeats that filled the streets and echoed off the buildings.
We loved the drums! I couldn’t help but dance a little myself. The whole crowd swayed and pulsed with the beat of the drums. The Jolly Boys, a local band, played their calypso beats as they drifted by on a float.
What’s a parade without the smiles of children? There were dozens and dozens of kids in the parade– some dancing in patriotic tulle dresses, some dressed in historical garb holding their mothers’ hands, some waving like princesses and others peeking through windows.
The car enthusiasts also contributed to the parade. This taxi is a little spiffier than the ones you usually see on the roads, but it still has the typical giant front-window sticker.
This is my friend Lisa. She marched in the parade wearing cultural dress. The cultural clothing was probably the most visually interesting part of the celebration. There were clothes from every era in every style, from the drab and dirty slacks of the salt pickers to the Princess Julianna dress with a hoop skirt the size of New Jersey. I was excited to see professors from Ben’s school, American University of the Caribbean, representing the school and rocking salt picker hats!
I was amazed at the stilt-walkers! The parade lasted about an hour and a half, and these people walked on stilts the whole time. That takes some serious skill. There were probably fifteen of these– I wonder who made the clothes for them? Equally as cool were the living statues. They looked so real! I’m not sure, but I think they were based on some of the statues on Sint Maarten’s round-a-bouts. This side of the island has more round-a-bouts than intersections, and each one has a statue with local significance.
As the sun began to sink, the parade marched to its final destination– Festival Village. Tired dancers and sweaty but happy walkers disbanded and began to enjoy the celebrations for themselves.
Happy Sint Maarten’s Day, everyone! What a wonderful way to celebrate our island home.