Photo : Vishnu Bisram
The Caribbean (Guyana or Trinidad) Christmas season is a unique experience. Aspects of the celebration are etched in the minds of Guyanese and Trinis now settled in the US. It is because of the memories, and to be with relatives, among other reasons, why many Guyanese or Trini Americans prefer to go "home" to relive the unique experience of the season.
People remember gift-giving, feasting, exchanging cards, listening to music, watching the masquerade bands, going to the horse races, visiting friends and relatives, etc.
Christmas offers the opportunity for renewal within the home - the equivalent of a spring-cleaning in America. The house and yard get a thorough cleaning and redecorated. New curtains are also put up. And there may be new furniture. In some homes, polishing and varnishing of old furniture and the floor are done. New cushions would be in place along with new spreads on the beds and new pillows to welcome the new season. The lawns were immaculately kept and tree trunks white washed. The Christmas tree was up or a tropical tree on the front yard was lit up. People had simple decorations in their homes.
Christmas produced a special feeling that is associated with certain sounds (music - both religious and secular, western and Indian, church bells, special radio programs). The sounds in the air were horns, whistles, bells, popping toy guns, crying baby dolls, juke box, etc. There was also a certain smell (curry and massala dishes, pachounie is a must, the fruit cake, ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, home made wine, etc.). There was also the smell of new furniture, curtains, bed spreads, etc. The aromatic scent wafts in the air and all the decorations and trimmings brighten up entire neighborhoods.
Christmas was a time when people sent Christmas cards to each other and to relatives and friends around the world; now emails and texts replace the paper cards. The imported cards reflected conditions in these countries – white snow, etc., as well as the tropical countries including Guyana.
Christmas was associated with a spirit of friendliness (expressed in smiles, handshakes, hugs and pecks on the cheeks, etc.). People invited each other to their home or sent our cakes or foods to each other's home. There was not the kind of ethnic animosity one sees today.
Christmas time was associated with phone contacts with loved ones across the seas. International calls were from America, Canada, the United Kingdom; local could not afford to call overseas. But today many calls originate from Guyana because of reduced rates arising out of phone competition. In the olden days, people looked forward for radio programs that carried telephone greetings recorded and packaged as a program aired on Christmas Day or Boxing Day in which overseas Guyanese wished relatives and friends a happy holiday. These were later replaced with telex messages and subsequently replaced by phone calls and internet messages. And today there are text messages. We looked forward for the greetings and everyone flocked around radio stations.
No Guyana Christmas was without special music. As in North America, Christmas carols were very popular - the same ones heard in North America although there were several popular local ones as well. Businesses advertise their Christmas goods and services early and as such radio and television stations started Christmas programming much sooner than in North America -- around mid-November right after Diwali and Eid celebrations. The radios also played special local folk music. And the music of the masquerade band was evident almost everywhere. Neighborhoods were festooned with trimmings, balloons and other decorations. Christmas singing and concerts were also performed in churches and schools.
The season was associated with giving gifts -- to relatives, friends, business associates, children, and the needy at Christmas. Toys, games and clothes were some of the favorite children's gifts. Children were told that their gifts were brought by Father Christmas and that they should hang socks. They were encouraged to go to bed by midnight so Santa can bring their gifts. Gifts were opened in the morning, generally with squeals of delight from the children.
Christmas was a time for baking -- black and sponge cake or fruit cake and bread which goes well with Dutch head cheese. Dried fruits were soaked in liquor months earlier for the black cake. Pine tart, cheese roll and black eye were some of the pastries that kids look forward to during the season; these go well with ginger beer and pine drink or Mauby or sorrel, cream soda and red spot.
Christmas was also a time for family get together. Families prepared food, cakes and other goodies served with traditional home made drinks. There was a lot of excitement in baking bread or cake. Relatives, friends and co-workers were invited for a hearty mile. One does not need an invitation to visit a family for lunch or dinner; it is traditional for families to expect uninvited visitors some of whom may be complete strangers. Well dressed, people go around visiting neighbors and relatives to partake in the feasts. Among the main items served were black cake, ginger beer, imported apples, imported grapes, walnuts, dates, (before they were banned during the 1970s). There was also a variety of sweets and drinks include ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, and sherry wine.
The holiday season extended over on Boxing Day. More of the same is repeated for Old Year and New Year. The season was also a time for new movies and many people go to the cinemas to view hit movies from Bollywood or Hollywood. Horse racing occurred during the season and people looked forward for this rare pastime.
Oh what an unforgettable basket of memories left behind.