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The Origins of Nine Mornings

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Tue Oct 22, 2013

by Oswald Fereira

I read recently in SEARCHLIGHT in Dr Adrian Fraser’s column that there is soon to be a recognition of the 100th anniversary of Nine Mornings, and it apparently has been accepted that Nine Mornings is in fact linked to a Christmas Novena tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.{{more}}

Early this year, I wrote a discourse in SEARCHLIGHT on the possible origins of Nine Mornings. My research led me to hypothesize that Nine Mornings in St Vincent could have evolved out of a Christmas Novena tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. I was careful to state that this was just my hypothesis and that further research was needed to test this and any other theories. Dr Fraser states his doubts that Nine Mornings is at all linked to a Christmas Novena tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Let me state that I am glad to see that someone, a historian, is trying to research the origins of Nine Mornings, because it appears to be yet another something of St Vincent that has faded into history and we, as a nation, need to get some clarity.

I am anxious to get to the bottom of this Vincentian phenomenon. Ever since my childhood, I was curious to know why this phenomenon occurs in St Vincent but not in any of the neighbouring islands. What was so different in St Vincent to allow this custom to develop? My curiosity was sparked when I visited the Philippines and discovered the Misa de Gallo (literally Mass as the cock crows) tradition where Filipinos go to Mass and after Mass they walk around, socialize, buy food from the street vendors, and then go off to work. This starts on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve, culminating in the Midnight Mass (Noche Buena), nine days, a Novena. I remember as a child being told that I would be awakened at “First Cock Crow” or “Second Cock Crow” to walk Nine Mornings. So, I saw some similarities between this Philippine tradition and Nine Mornings.

I remember as a child being told that we walk Nine Mornings in remembrance of the Three Wise Men, The Magi, who were seeking the Baby Jesus. So, I began to think that Nine Mornings may in fact have a religious significance and could have its origins in this religious nine days before Christmas, in the Roman Catholic faith, the nine being a Novena. So, I started looking at Christmas traditions around the world and the only reference I found to any nine days before Christmas celebrations were in countries with a strong Roman Catholic tradition; almost every country in Central and South America, Spain and Portugal, all having some resemblance to the Misa de Gallo tradition of the Philippines and to the revelry associated with Vincentian Nine Mornings. In Madeira, early morning masses, Missa do Parto (childbirth mass), is celebrated from December 16 to December 24; hence my hypothesis that Nine Mornings in St Vincent could have evolved out of a Christmas Novena linked to the Madeiran Portuguese population.

There was one significant gap in my hypothesis. Why did a similar tradition not develop in neighbouring islands that have a similar history, a Madeiran Roman Catholic population, and a tradition of slavery. Why nine mornings and not seven, ten, or twelve? This, in my view, is the major missing link. It is possible that Nine Mornings did grow out of the Christmas Novena tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, but there must have been other triggers in St Vincent to allow the tradition to evolve and bloom while it did not happen in the other islands. What are those missing pieces? Or perhaps, as the Portuguese “did their thing”, the rest of the Vincentian population adapted and did something to parallel that same time span and that eventually became Nine Mornings.

I must say that I agree with Dr Fraser that we should not rush to affirm a date when Nine Mornings started until we have more concrete evidence. Much research is needed. Our archived records must be scoured and the findings debated. Still, we may never get a definitive answer. Nine Mornings could have started innocently and gradually evolved, so the actual origin may be obscure, not unlike Carnival. The details could have been different in different parts of the island until there was a general fusion of sorts. Let us remember that we had a long tradition of celebrating January 22nd as Discovery Day with a public holiday, and research has shown that Columbus may have never discovered St Vincent. So, let us not be too hasty in declaring the 100th or any number anniversary for Nine Mornings. It is far more important to be proud of this tradition as unique in the Caribbean to St Vincent.

Let us not give up the search for its origins and in the meantime, perhaps, we can proclaim December 16th a national holiday to kick off the Nine Mornings celebrations. My suggestion to Dr Fraser is to try and speak to any alert nonagenarians or folk over a hundred years old and see what they can remember of Nine Mornings, as so much of our folklore is unwritten and eventually passes away with the older generations. In the meantime, continue the research and keep the hypotheses coming. Has anyone researched the Christmas traditions of rural England? I have always seen some link between the English tradition of carolling at Christmas and our practice of “Singing Out”. What if there was some obscure Nine Days before Christmas celebration that may have been brought to St Vincent by an English plantation owner or overseer from that part of rural England? That could explain why St Vincent, but not in the other islands – just another hypothesis.

Finally, I plead again with our Government to get all our historical data, birth, death and marriage information, immigration records, old newspapers, ships records, etc, in electronic form, because constant use of fragile paper records will lead to abuse and further erode our record base. There are many international agencies who may be willing to assist. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) will be only too willing to get our genealogy records into electronic form, because they will, at the same time, expand their worldwide database. Once these historical records are in electronic form, they will be a source of government revenue, as researchers worldwide would be only too willing to buy access and the Dr Frasers of the world can get on with research and bring our history back to life. What is more, several persons could access electronic records simultaneously and search functions could speed up the process of scanning and retrieving data. This will stimulate the kinds of debates that are necessary and bring our cultural history back to life. We owe it to the coming generations, before it is all lost into antiquity.

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