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ST THOMAS — In the Virgin Islands, this cherished Christmas tradition is accompanied by the lively notes of the “Guavaberry Song,” composed by the late Bill La Motta. This festive melody pays homage to the unique tradition of guavaberry rum, a drink deeply embedded in Caribbean culture. Fruity and spicy, bitter yet sweet, this beloved liqueur and its distinctive flavor profile is a telltale sign that the holiday season has officially begun.

Centuries ago, people throughout the Caribbean began crafting guavaberry rum by blending guavaberries, rum, and sugar. Despite its name, the guavaberry has no similarities with the widely known guava fruit. Related to clove and eucalyptus, these small blueberry-sized fruits grow on trees scattered across Caribbean islands and tend to grow wild. This makes it quite a challenge to cultivate due to sensitivity to environmental factors. Ripe guavaberries range in color from yellowish orange to dark red or blackish-purple, with a thin-skinned, aromatic flesh surrounding a seed.

Guavaberry trees thrive in specific locations like the Northside and West End on St. Thomas, in the Bordeaux Mountain area on St. John, and in the dense rainforest area on St. Croix. Due to their limited supply and small size, people often freeze the berries after harvesting for later use to create jams, tarts, and the ever-popular guavaberry rum.

Handcrafted guavaberry rum in the Virgin Islands involves a secret blend of rum, nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, and guavaberries that has been passed down for generations. Large batches of this concoction mature in glass demijohns — round narrow-necked bottles enclosed in a wicker cover — typically for weeks or even a year. Some families have a guavaberry rum brew that has been maturing for 20+ years! For those preserving the tradition, crafting guavaberry rum is a source of pride, a connection to heritage, and a continuation of Christmas customs. Today, guavaberry rum remains integral to Christmas celebrations, sparking discussions among families about who concocts the best blend.

This Christmas libation holds a special place in local tradition, evoking nostalgia for the holiday celebrations of yesteryear. In the past, caroling involved visits to neighbors, sharing snacks, and sipping on guavaberry rum, creating a sense of community and festive camaraderie.

While commercially produced guavaberry rum is available in some island stores, nothing compares to the homemade batches shared among family and friends during the holidays. The spirit of the infamous “Guavaberry Song” echoes through these festive gatherings, weaving the past and present into a tapestry of Christmas tradition and community spirit.

Written by Anquanette Gaspard