Those were the good old days

Stabroek News
December 25, 2001

Dear Editor, The end-of-the-year holiday season is upon us once again. And no doubt overseas-based Guyanese must be reminiscing about the good old times of the Christmas season in their former homeland when the economy was doing well preceding the turbulent times of the 1980s. Although I have been away from 'home' for nearly 25 years, the season always evokes boyhood memories of the joy and exuberance that was the hallmark of the Christmas and New Year holiday season. The tropical warmth would seem at first to be an unlikely setting for Christ-mas. But it is actually a wonderful background in the Caribbean. Christmas was and probably still is the most celebrated of all festivals in Guyana; the season transcended religious and national boundaries because even Hindus and Muslims partook in the festivities and celebrated it in all its glory. Although a devout Hindu, I remember as a student at St Joseph Anglican Primary school, attending mass and singing Christmas carols; many of my Muslim friends also did the same. We all joined in the "Christmas spirit" with the rest of our classmates to celebrate a popular festival that was known for the peace and joy it brought to the world. The holiday season was usually one of expectancy and excitement. As a youth I looked forward to it - the parties in school, the late night out in Rose Hall Town on Christmas Eve, the baking of the cake, cooking, horse racing, masquerade bands, the bazaars at the schools, the movies, and many other frolic activities.

The season also provided an opportunity for children to get new clothes for the cinemas or to attend horse racing or for the ride to town on Christmas Eve or for a fete or simply just for the new year. Every family would make preparation weeks before the actual holiday. As soon as the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) and Eid (end of fasting for Muslims) festivals were over, preparation for Christ-mas and New Year began. Curtains were washed and cleaned. Floors were varnished. Houses were re-painted or white-washed. The grass was cut. Artificial flowers and lights were taken out of storage to decorate around the home as well as the Xmas tree. The decorations were usually left to the children who had a most wonderful time making beautiful ornaments and putting them around the house. There was an abundance of flickering multi-coloured lights which lined the windows and entrances to the homes. Houses engaged in an unofficial competition for the title of the best decorated and most lit home. My friends and I would traverse the neighbourhood taking in the beautifully lit scenery. The Christmas holiday was the occasion for merry making.

There were lots of fetes and parties. There were family get-togethers. And often the men engaged in "rum" drinking in the streets on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and on the Saturday night between the two holidays. During the season, people would embrace and exchange cards and gifts and everyone would have a hearty time. Traditional music, local chutney, soca, Indian movie and golden oldies, as well as English music and carols would blare from the radios and stereo sets in virtually every home. During the last week of work before Christmas, offices would hold parties for their staff. Schools would also hold parties for kids. I remember the teacher asking the students to take in five cents and an egg to participate in the party; in return the students received balloons, candies, cake, a small gift and soft drink. In school, we sang carols and were even entertained with a school concert and a magic show.

On the evenings preceding Christmas, people would visit the churches to view the nativity plays and some even partook in candlelight services. Many also attended midnight mass at the churches on Christmas Eve. Also on Christmas Eve, parents would take their children to the city for window shopping, or to purchase toys and goodies. Harris at Rose Hall used to be crowded as revellers rushed to have boiled channa, cake, drinks and ice-cream, and acquire new clothing. Before the children (myself included) went to bed on Christmas Eve, they were instructed to hang socks and to pray and make a promise never again to use profanity or behave bad in order for Santa to give them gifts. And low and behold, when I woke up in the morning, there were small gifts and coins in the socks. For most, especially the young, Christmas excitement was at its peak with the baking of the cake and bread. The fresh bread usually went well with Dutch head (Edam) cheese and soft drinks or pine drink or kool aid or sorrel or ginger beer or mauby. Sponge and fruit cake were baked around this time after dried imported fruits (raisins, currants, cherries, citrus, prunes) for black cake were minced and soaked well in advance. A large cast iron mince mill, bolted to the end of a table (same one used to grind garlic, pepper and mango for the making of achar), was used to grind the mixture of these fruits to a pulp. The mixture was then placed in a bottle and rum and wine (made from jamoon fruits or purchased from the stores) were poured into it; in a couple of months it was ready for the delicious black cake.

The children usually "beat" the eggs or assisted in mixing the cake in a huge enamel bucket or basin. The cake was usually washed down with cydrax or aereated drinks or kool aid. No Christmas Eve was without masquerade bands (musicians with mouth organ, flute and drums) - men dressed in skirts with live music - which would go street to street and house to house to dance and receive donations. The young, including myself, would have a terrific time and the extra money would come in handy to purchase goodies. And during the festival, children would make their own fireworks from the tin of carbon which when lit set off a bang, much like that of a firecracker. Steel wool, dipped in kerosene, when lit provided local fireworks. Christmas day involved more of the same as the night before - more masquerade bands, exchanging of gifts, cake, food, and drinks. Early Christmas morning, the sheep, goat, fowl and duck would be killed.

And the cooking would begin very early for lunch; curried and massala dishes and dhal-puri and pachounie (intestines, liver, heart, tripe of goat or sheep) with bara, phulourie were the favourite among all groups of people. Accompanying these delicious meals were fresh fruits (apples, pears, grapes) and dried dates from the temperate countries. For some strange reason, people associate apples and grapes with the season when in fact they don't grow in the US during winter. They were and probably still are called Christmas apples. After a hearty lunch, people would gather around their radios (there were few phones around during this time) to listen to Christmas greetings from students and relatives in England, the US, and Canada. Hearing one's name from a greeting sent from overseas created quite an excitement. The celebration continued on Boxing Day with more greetings. The celebration repeated itself on Old Year's night and during the New Year when people again listened to greetings coming from abroad. Those were the good old days.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram