Christmas in Guyana in 1970

By Hazel Woolford
Guyana Chronicle
December 31, 2000

FOR the student of history, the year 1870 defined the age of nationalism and reform in European history and historiography.

It was the onset of a period which witnessed the consolidation of imperialism, the rise of Germany as a strong industrialised society, the beginnings of socialism and labour - consciousness, and the rise of mass education. In Britain, there was the passing of the Education Act of 1870, which allowed for the retention of church schools, as well as the establishment of state schools.

In 1970, 100 years later in Guyana, a former British colony, the nationalist government proceeded with its decolonisation process. It established the first constitutional Cooperative Republic on February 23, 1970.

During the PNC administration, from 1964, the country had gone through middle road to democratic socialism, to socialism based on Marxism-Leninism. The legislation for the establishment of Guyana as a Republic had been passed in parliament in 1969, by a majority of 46 to two votes.

The Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. P. A. Reid had enunciated in 1970 that the:

Central principles in Republican Cooperativism and its implementation are: self-help and self-reliance, rural and community development, national ownership and control of certain basic and strategic resources by Guyanese and equitable distribution of the rewards which follow. The first is based on the fact that only Guyanese are either primarily concerned with, or capable of achieving national development.

By the political act of officially establishing the Republic, the government ushered in a trisectoral economy, that is, private, state and cooperative. Moreover, in the Sophia Declaration, Burnham defined Cooperative Socialism as `Cooperativism' - the human organisation through which true socialism can be achieved."

The government attempted to achieve this objective by establishing cooperatives through the whole of Guyana.

When the PNC administration severed its political dependency on the British Monarchy, it emphasised that it intended to mould the destiny of Guyana.

Prime Minister Burnham had informed his audience that in keeping with the policy of the Guyanicity of Guyana, there would be a change from Governor General to President. In his opinion, this action would result in "the psychological, emotional and intellectual emancipation necessary for freedom at the political and economic levels". Hence, the cooperative movement would become more than simply an appendage of the Social Welfare Division.

The Burnham Administration had also renewed the call for the reorganisation of the West Indian Federation. During 1969, he had encouraged the Women's Auxiliary of the PNC to pursue the idea of forming a Caribbean alliance of women.

The three-year-old West Indian Association of Guyana had also called for a federation of the Caribbean. The objective of this exercise was to achieve political unity. The Caribbean governments had made progress towards economic unity, with the creation of CARIFTA and the Regional Development Bank.

Within the Burnham government, there were two former major players of the defunct West Indian Declaration (1958-1962). These were Sir David Rose and S.S Ramphal.

Sir David Rose had been a Defence Adviser to the W.I. Federation. S.S. Ramphal had been an Assistant Attorney General in the former political union.

In accordance with its decolonisation policy, the government had also initiated other changes, which would ensure that the people of Guyana would not only mobilise and control their own resources, but also promote their culture. As Mr. L.F.S. Burnham emphasised in 1974:

We, however, named Guyana a Cooperative Republic to highlight the fact that the Cooperative will be the principal institutions for giving the masses the control of our economy, to emphasis the fact that we aim at making the Cooperative sectors the dominant sector and that the Cooperative is and will be the mechanism for making the little man a real man.

The British honours of MBE, OBE, CBE and KCMG were replaced by national honours. Many of these awards were given for political services.

On February 23, 1970, the British honours were dispensed with. The government of Guyana conferred national honours on 59 Guyanese for the first time on March, 1970. These honours included the Order of Excellence of Guyana, the Cacique's Crown of Honour, the Golden Arrowhead of Achievement, Medal of Service, Cacique's Crown of Valour, Golden Arrow of Courage, President's Commendation for Brave Conduct, military Service Star, Disciplined Services Star, and Disciplined Service Medal.

The dignity of Queen's Counsel (Q.C.) was replaced with the dignity of Senior Counsel (SC). The judges of the Supreme Court were addressed as `Your Honour' after February 23, 1970 instead of `Your Lordship', while lawyers were referred to as `State Law Officers'.

Those lawyers who appeared on behalf of the State in civil matters were addressed as `State Counsel' and lawyers who appeared for the state in criminal matters were designated `State Prosecutors'.

After February 23, 1970, lawyers who desired to be awarded silk, needed to apply to the Chancellor of the Judiciary. After having gone through the necessary procedures, the President would then make the appointment of Senior Counsel.

Attorney General Ramphal had submitted a seven-point plan to the Bar Association, in which there was also a proposal for the abandonment of wigs. Guyanese lawyers had made another step in the decolonisation process.

Thirty-eight, as opposed to 19 Barristers voted to abandon the wearing of wigs. The judges agreed to wear a black silk gown instead of the scarlet criminal robes.

Guyana also began to take steps towards decentralisation. During the 1970s, Linden, Corriverton, Rose Hall, Anna Regina, and Bartica were designated towns. The number of local authorities was reduced from 106 to 59. In June 1970, local government elections were held in Georgetown, New Amsterdam, Bartica, Christianburg-Wismar, Mackenzie, Sheet Anchor-Cumberland and Leguan.

The Institute of Decolonisation also instituted a change of dress for men. The shirt-jac replaced the collar and tie.

There was also a major achievement in foreign policy. During 1970, Guyana became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. She was elected to the Bureau or governing body in the same year. The administration also re-examined the tax system and presented the Housing Development Bill, which was expected to relieve the housing problem in the country. One of the main objectives of the Bill was to build houses for the lower income groups.

It was proposed that the majority of the funds would be obtained from the Ministry through the sale or rental of land or the buildings under its administration. Embodied in the bill was the Mortgage Guarantee legislation, which was designed to assist those persons who would not have been able to acquire loans prior to this bill.

The creation of the Guyana State Cooperative Bank was designed to assist the small man, who could not access loans from the private banks. The bank was opened on February 23, 1970.

During October 1969, the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Desmond Hoyte appointed a committee to oversee the de-emphasis of the commercialisation of Christmas, and the organisation of the first Republic Celebrations Committee. The members of the committee comprised David Singh M.P Chairman, Harold Davis, Vice Chairman, Billy Pilgrim, Cicely Robinson, Pat Magalee, A.J. Seymour, Lynette Dolphin, Frank Pilgrim, Neil Isaacs and Rory Westmaas.

The government had begun sensitising Guyanese to the change to Republican status. It had proposed that in keeping with the objectives of the Cooperative Republic, the government would de-emphasise the materialistic aspect of the Christmas celebrations. They emphasised that Christmas was not a money-making venture.

There were three leading members of the PNC administration, who stated their position on the Christmas celebrations. These were David Singh, Shirley Field-Ridley and Patricia Limerick.

David Singh insisted that by the very nature of the holiday, Guyanese should spend less on Christmas, and have a gay time on Republic day. He was concerned that there were prominent persons in the society who had assumed that he had recommended the abandonment of Christmas as a whole. He responded that the emphasis on the commercial aspect of Christmas had destroyed the `religious spirit of Xmas' Singh stated:

Among other things, Christmas has become too commercialised. Too often, is it an occasion of excessive drinking and eating and amusement which sometimes border on the licentious. How true? And if I were asked to precis that statement would I not get full marks for saying spend less at Xmas.

The preferred to have Christmas celebrated in the same manner that the other religious bodies in the country observed their festivals. Singh said that it was the traders who had contributed to the removal of Christ from Christmas.

Thus, with the introduction of the Republican celebrations, the churches would have an opportunity to emphasise the sanctity of Christmas. Singh concluded:

Let us fill the churches and sing the beautiful Christmas songs. Let us worship and give thanks for the birth of Christ. Let us have a Christmas about which Christ would be justly proud.

Shirley Field-Ridley was also concerned that although there were social customs associated with the celebration of Christmas, one should not neglect the main objective of this religious festival. She reminded her audience that Christmas was the time when everyone paid tribute to the birth of Christ, and the fact of the selflessness of His life so that others would live. She encouraged the schoolchildren to continue the custom of giving gifts without incurring expense.

The other PNC parliamentarian who clarified her position on the Christmas celebrations during the Republican period was Patricia Limerick.

Mrs. Limerick was a back-bench Member of Parliament of the PNC, and a former member of the Institute of Decolonisation. In defending the de-emphasis of the secular aspect of Christmas, she said that the government did not intend to substitute Cuffy for Christ. Christmas was a Holy day, while Republic Day was a political rebirth for all. Hence, the non-Christian aspects of Christmas should be shifted to Republic Day. She wrote:

For Cuffy: let us have festivity to highlight our jubilation at having at last become free men. And for Christ: let us use the chosen day for worshipping the Creator of the universe in the manner most befitting the religious significance of His birth.

Christmas, as now celebrated, is too highly a commercialised festival for many persons. It is the main harvest for Water Street and the season when I believe liquor sales are at a peak.

The government proposed to introduce `Children's Night', which would be observed on the eve of Republic Day. Instead of giving children gifts at Christmas, they would be given on the eve of Republic Day. It was also suggested that there should be a "sacrificial day" on February 20, when members of the PNC would make sacrificial financial contributions to the party. But Mr. Burnham did not indicate whether he would change his open house from Boxing Day to Republic Day.

On Boxing Day, all Guyanese were invited to visit the Prime Minister's residence and participate in the Christmas celebrations. The open house on Boxing Day was very popular among Guyanese and particularly the supporters of the PNC.

In the light of the status of the country, and its decolonisation policy, the government had already begun to substitute local products for the imported apples, grapes and pears. The limited supplies of cabbages, ham and carrots on the local market, also forced the government to continue to import these items. However, the administration continued to promote the production of local ham and to promote agriculture.

The reaction of the press to the celebration of Guyana's first Christmas after the country attained Republican status, reflected their appreciation of the historic significance of the occasion, in the new phases of Guyana's political development.

The Sun, the official organ of the United Force (UF) was opposed to Guyana's breaking away from the British monarchy. The newspaper was convinced that the PNC administration had wanted to dispense with Christmas entirely. In the article of October 5, 1969, the writer observed that Guyanese had learned to live in unity under British rule.

The Catholic Standard, in its editorial `A Threat to Christmas' expressed concern over the government's real reason for de-emphasising the commercialisation of Christmas. They wanted the government to establish very clearly that they did not intend to glorify the state at the expense of the Christian church.

The abolition of the secular aspects of Christmas was wide and varied. One of the main reasons was that some of the journalists misinterpreted the proposals of the government. There were those who assured that the PNC administration had recommended that the whole Christmas celebrations should be de-emphasised, in deference to the Republic day celebrations. While others assured that the emphasis on the Republic celebrations was due to the government's decision to adopt a socialist posture. There were some who suggested that the decision to stress the spiritual sanctity of Christmas was influenced by the presence of the Jordanites in the Guyanese society. Conversely, there were journalists who appreciated what the government had proposed. The journalists cautioned that the transition of Christmas as a solely religious national holiday from a secular one would be very slow.

One of the journalists who had studied the recommendations of the government fully, was Carl Blackman. He supported the idea of making Republic Day a national holiday. He suggested:

The day must be a day of rejoicing but also a day of rededicating ourselves to the task of nation-building. Parades, speeches, school rallies, steel band tramps and even a big blow-out in the evening would be quite in order.

In his article of Sunday November 2, 1969, in the Sunday Graphic, he wrote:

Perhaps some day, Republic celebrations will be bigger and brighter than Christmas but it should also be given time to evolve its own pattern and tradition. If Republic Week ever supersedes Christmas it will be because it is different. An imitation Christmas can never be a real Christmas.

He responded to the proposal that gift-giving should be done during the Republic Week, instead of during the Christmas season. It was his view that the distribution of gifts during Christmas was part of the Christmas significance of the festival. He observed in his article that `Uncle Cuffy putting toys for children in calabashes the night before Republic Day will not be a real threat to Santa Claus'.

The editorial of the New Nation stressed that Christmas would be used to unite the small man. The editor pointed out that Christmas 1970 would be the first in which Guyanese will realise the following:

- minimise their expenditure by the bulk purchases they will make;

- effect necessary savings;

- achieve the objectives of the Cooperative Republic;

- the commercial community could surely reduce their marked-up prices on commodities;

- the well-to-do could, as a philanthropic gesture, make significant donations to charitable organisations;

- share what they have with the institutions for the sick and suffering.

The article concluded that when these objectives were achieved, Guyanese would make spiritual, social, institutional and economic progress.

The weekend edition of the Sunday Chronicle during Christmas 1970, acknowledged that the spiritual aspect of the Christmas festival should not be de-emphasised. The writer was aware that those features associated with the Christmas celebrations such as the shopping spree, the numerous pre-Christmas parties and the giving of gifts and `cheer' to the indigent and the poor, would not be abolished immediately.

Subscribers also contributed to the debate over whether the government should de-emphasise the commercial aspect of Christmas or abandon the festival as a whole. There were letters which recommended an end to the Christmas celebrations.

In a letter to the New Nation, one subscriber suggested that Guyanese should celebrate their Christmas on February 23. The writer also proposed that there should also be essay and poetry competitions on the Cooperative Republic. The large majority of letters supported the shift of the secular aspect of Christmas to the Republic week celebrations.

Although recognising that the Christmas celebrations meant a lot to the small man, a letter writer emphasised that Guyanese should worship at Christmas. Another subscriber commended the government for encouraging Guyanese to restrict their spending during Christmas. She was concerned that Guyanese spent too much on a religious occasion, thus losing sight of the main purpose of the celebrations. Like several subscribers, she was aware that the date December 25 was not the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ, but was selected to pay homage to the Son of God. She recommended that cards should be published for the Republic celebrations:

What I would like to see is the market flooded with cards for Republic Day by a local institution, on Republic Day a mammoth church service at the National Park, followed by tramps through every village and the city, every house an open house, with a ceremony at the National Park at night to climax things.

One store owner placed a `Mother Sally' in his store window at Christmas time. The writer complimented him for the "novel and patriotic idea".

Finally, one subscriber said:

The practice of buying new furniture, new curtains, a new stock of clothes, repainting houses, is quite feasible at Christmas or `year's end' since this means that people are preparing to face the new year with a clean slate. This takes the form of sweeping out the old dirt of the previous years.

When the debates in Parliament adjourned in December 1970, Prime Minister Burnham, in exchanging greetings with his colleagues said:

Christmas is the time of goodwill. We have had our difficulties; we have had our problems in this House, we have had our Cooperative Republic, and we, on this side of the House, would want, in the words of the Lord's Prayer to forgive the trespasses of the Opposition in the sure undertaking that the Opposition will forgive us our alleged trespasses.

However, the debate over the government's position in relation to the Christmas celebrations continued in parliament. The differences of interpretation were reflected in the speech of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, who, in his closing speech for the year said:

One thing which I failed to mention was that the Government did not succeed in de-emphasising Christmas... I think it is good that the Government has failed because this is something traditional to the people of Guyana. Regardless of how we argue, quarrel and debate, the time comes, at least once a year, when we all can forget past differences and not only celebrate, but be friends. Christmas time and New Year always bring for the Guyanese people, not only relaxation, but friendship, hospitality and all the good things in the Guyanese character. I think this is something which we must always not only be proud of, but cherish.

I hope Sir, that since the Government has failed in its effort to de-emphasis Christmas, that it will also relax, perhaps for next Christmas, and permit the entry of that little something which also offered some pleasure, I refer to the grapes. I am one of those who cherish mangoes and sapodilla and all the nice things we have here.

While the Republic celebrations of 1970 witnessed the formal ceremonies like the declaration of the Republic at the National Park at midnight on February 22, the opening of the Parliament on February 23, and the National Costume Band Parade and Competition, there was also the Song of the Republic written by Thomas Halley.

Christmas 1970 was not different from any of the other Christmas celebrations prior to the formation of the Republic. In earlier years, the masquerade bands and the centipede bands were an important feature of the Christmas celebrations. By the 1960s, there was a decline in the masquerade bands and the centipede bands. This incipient decline became even more invisible after the Christmas of 1970.

From Christmas 1970, there was the rise of the steel bands. Other important parts of the Christmas celebrations of 1970 were food - the garlic pork, pepperpot - and Christmas Carols, and several advertisements inviting Guyanese to spend their savings and box hands in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

One other custom which did not decline after Christmas 1970 was the staging of the boxing match on Boxing Day.

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