In true St. John form, Christmas time has always been quite the celebration. The Ugly Sweater Party at the Tap Room, the Evening in the Courtyard at Mongoose Junction, the delivery of gifts by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve to the children of St.John in the square and the All-Island Holiday Party, lovingly referred to as St. John Prom, keep the holiday calendars of residents and visitors full during this lovely time of year in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has proved yet again triumphant over these annual celebrations and the steady announcement of cancellations began last month. Formally, the St. John Prom has been postponed for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
St. John Prom holds a very special significance for all of us residing on St. John. The event began in the aftermath of Hurricane Marylin when island residents, tired from recovery, needed a chance to get out, be together and celebrate the hard work that had been on going in the months prior. The event grew and evolved over the years and, even in the after math of Hurricane Irma in 2017, continued as an annual event for 24 years. Nothing could stop this amazing celebration of love and togetherness as an island wide celebration of the holidays. Until a pandemic proposed that the safety of our Love City family would be compromised by the event.
I am very aware of the importance of this function in my eight years on St. John. Especially in 2017. I remember seeing everyone cleaned up and smiling and embracing each other. It was almost as if each hug represented a form of relief. We’re here. We’re ok. We’re making it through this.
I am sure that MANY residents have their own reflection on the importance of this annual event in their “most wonderful time of the year.” But, I wanted to let one of the founders of the All Island Holiday Party speak for himself on the evolution of it over time. Michael Barry, owner of Sun Dog Cafe at Mongoose Junction, and his beautiful wife Barbie sent me a note filled with heart warming sentiments in the days following the pandemic inspired postponement (not full cancellation!) of the 2020 St. John Prom:
“In the wake of Irmaria, Sun Dog Cafe was one of the first businesses open. We had a generator (most days), and a T1 internet service, until a random WAPA guy cut it inadvertently, as if the “phone booth” at Ronnie’s Pizza needed some more people in it, or on it.
In any event, we approached the holiday season with real concerns about the logistics of the All Island Holiday Party. Looking about Mongoose Junction, the tarped roof over our bar, the piles of construction materials here and there, and the plywood screwed into the broken glass of many shops, I did wonder, however briefly, if we should have this party.
That year, I didn’t yet have power at my house and still have video of the Christmas tree with the growl of the generator grating away in the background. Our staff had been decimated, many moving away instantly, so we went from 23 employees to 5.
Within a year, one of the 5 and one of our most appreciated servers, Kenny Benson would pass away. He had worked for us for perhaps ten years prior and, in some measure because of Irmaria, I haven’t even still fully processed this. But I’m grateful for having known him.
The question became: “what about the prom?” The party had been born when Hurricane Marilyn visited in Sept of 1995, and was held at Caneel Bay Resort. It was, by all accounts, a magic affair, as they celebrated life in the ruins of Marilyn, amidst the ruins at Caneel.
How, now, could we do less?
So many have attended the party, but for those who haven’t, it’s fascinating. Mongoose Junction is the perfect venue for a party, providing both the rush of an actual crowd (a rare site on St. John) and spaces where you might have a more personal conversation. But knowing, if you live on St. John, that you will see many of the people you interact with over the year. People renew acquaintances– that is what a Holiday Party is for.
We’ve had a lot of sponsorship help over the years, starting with Mongoose Junction Merchants Association who brought the party from Caneel to Mongoose Junction. Caneel Bay Resort catered the first three or so, and did a fantastic job all dressed in white and cooking crab cakes to order.
For many years, several restaurants set up tables in the courtyards and gave food away. The merchants set up mini bars with $3 champagne flutes. Eventually the logistics suggested that the mighty Sun Dog Cafe would need to manage the amenities. So we did.
Back to 2017…Looking at the blank plywood of the shuttered businesses in Mongoose Junction and thinking about trying to have an elegant party presented a challenge. About two weeks before the party, I got out a can of chalkboard paint, thinking that black has to be a step in the right direction.
I assured myself that I would come up with a brilliant idea for some sort of graphic. Next thing I know, it’s the morning of the party and I’ve got nothing for it. I find myself standing in St. John Hardware, staring at the paint. A guy looks at me and says, “You wouldn’t, by any chance, need a chalkboard artist?”
True story and a truly St. John moment.
Dumbfounded, I managed to say, “Hell Yes,” and something about being grateful.
That night, we cooked up some roast tenderloin and crabcakes and shrimp to give away and we danced the night away listening to Shikima, Greg, Laz, Bo for some magic hours, just like always. Which is what we ALL seriously needed: a moment to feel like some part of our lives was normal (by St. John standards).
I love talking to the many who’ve attended…There some St. Johnians who give me a Yogi Berra approach:
“No one goes there anymore because it’s too crowded” or “I haven’t stayed up past ten in twenty years”.
I get it, but we do get amazing cameos from all quarters of our local world, and you can feel Love City doing what it does.
This year, COVID-19 will prevent us from doing what we love to do. It’s a small sacrifice, all things considered. But we can’t cancel it. No way.
So, we are postponing the event until the governor decides that we are entering the “New Normal” phase and can allow ourselves to express the love we all feel inside and that we all share on our precious island.”
Thank you so much Mr. Barry…For sharing these heartfelt words and for all of the effort you and your wife and crew undertake every year in order to present this amazing event for the community. I truly hope that the dust settles shortly so that we can all be together again! Perhaps a Christmas in July may be in order? 🙂
*The majority of the photos used for this article were courtesy of Yelena Rogers Photography and I want to extend a special thank you to her and all who submitted photos for this post!