Christmas in the old days at Silvertown By Wes Davis December, 2001
Stabroek News
December 25, 2001

Memories, like the song says, don't go like people do. They always stay with you.

Every time I hear that beautiful carol HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING, my mind goes back to when I was around age 10 or 11. Of all the many Christmas carols and songs I learned in school and church, that was to become my all-time favourite carol. Somehow, hearing, singing or just humming the tune, magically transports me back to a particular pew near the wide open, arched- top door on the northern side of the church. It was in that corner of the church that the catechism class was conducted.

I can vividly picture Joe Wagner (now Father Wagner) teaching the class made up of us young Anglicans at St. Aidan's in Wismar, that bustling little village, now a part of the town of Linden; 65 miles up the Demerara River. Linden as a town, did not yet exist back then. There was Mackenzie on the eastern bank and the villages of Wismar and Christianburg sharing the western bank. Communication between the banks was provided by the half dozen or so boat services.

The Mackenzie community was developed by the Demerara Bauxite Company and its residents enjoyed the luxury of free electricity and piped water in their homes, compliments of their employers. Life on the west bank, however, seemed to have been left decades behind. There was no electricity and not one solitary motor vehicle traversed the streets. Potable water from the lone well which, incidentally, was just across the road from the church, was only available from stand-pipes at points on the main road which ran along the river bank. That road has since been named Burnham Drive.

It was around that time that a new housing scheme was taking shape at the southern end of Wismar. We all marveled at those aluminium houses glistening in the sunshine, with their new walaba fences bordering neatly layed-out, sand surfaced streets. Aluminium houses? Well, except for the foundation, columns, floor and steps everything else, windows, doors and all, was aluminium. Silvertown was fast becoming the new home for families from Wismar, Christianburg, Mackenzie and even from communities outside of the area.

Though early Silvertown lacked a piped pure water system, rainfall and the numerous hillside springs and resulting streams proved more than adequate for the small but growing population. Those springs just kept on flowing as though there was no end to their source of clear, fresh water. There were strict rules governing those drinking water springs which we collectively boasted produced the best tasting water in the entire country.

I guess Christmas-time in early Silvertown was like Christmas- time in any other rural community of the day. But spending Christmas with my aunt in Georgetown was a totally different experience. Being in 'town' more than justified getting up extra early and spending seven or so hours on the MV R.H. Carr down the Demerara River.

There was the day-time excitement of shopping in the busy downtown stores, many of them playing music to keep customers in the Christmas mood. Then there was window shopping at night, when whole families would casually stroll along Water Street and Regent Street and Camp Street gazing into brightly lit and well decorated store-fronts. The evening outing could, however, be incomplete without that much anticipated visit to Brown Betty for ice cream cones, popsicle, fudgicle, popcorn or a hamburger. Brown Betty occupied the building north of where Medicare now stands on Hinck Street.

A holiday in town was a treat to which just about every country boy looked forward, though at times I did miss Wismar with its hills and trees and river and creeks and wide open spaces and the freedom of playing cricket or gam on the street, having to interrupt only for the occasional bicycle to pass by.

Auntie's home in Alberttown, like so many others around the city, had a beautifully decorated Christmas tree with blinking lights and all. The impression did soak deep, I had to have a Christmas tree in our home come next Christmas.

The vegetation on the hills bordering Silvertown provided a variety of plants which were idealy shaped for making Christmas trees. In the main, two types Christmas trees were made. The leaves of some plants were removed and the stems were wrapped with green crepe paper which was first frilled at the edges. There were other plants which held their leaves long after being cut. Those were sprayed in silver and sometimes, with lots of care and some extra storage space, could last from one year to the next. Add the trimmings and our Christmas trees compared well with most others.

Making a Christmas tree every year was, for me, not a particularly welcome exercise and one for which I resolved to find a more lasting alternative. From about September one year I accumulated a stick of appropriate length and thickness, some binding wire, a pair of cutting pliers, pieces of old rope and some green dye. That year our home had a tree ready well before the season; a re-usable tree that could be folded and put away.

My mom, for some reason, thought that she must show off her son's handy work to some friends and neighbours. That did it. There was the first order, followed by another and another and others until blisters, tired fingers and burning eyes forced me to close off for that year.

For a several years, I would travel to Georgetown as soon as school closed for Christmas and purchase toys, cards, balloons and other items which we sold from a small table in front of our home. My inventory now broadened to include Christmas trees and decorations. There were, in many a Silvertown home, Christmas trees that could be used and put up for the following year. But no lights. Oh! for some fairy lights. The prospects of electricity crossing to our side of the river, at that time, appeared to be light years away.

My mother always taught us to be contented with what we had, but that could not erase the feeling that a Christmas tree without lights was just not complete.

I was fortunate to have had my mother spend Christmas of 1999 with my family. I now cherish the memory of that Christmas even more, since it was her last Christmas. As my sons were testing and setting the lights on the Christmas tree, my mom made mention of a certain Christmas during my teen years and explained that we had lights on our tree even before we had electricity in the village.

Even as I watched my boys working on their Christmas tree, my mind skipped back across the decades to that year when I challenged myself to provide our home with what turned out to be possibly the only lighted Christmas tree in Silvertown and maybe in all Wismar.

The challenge

My first task was to identify a power source and since we had no electricity, it was necessary to secure an adequate supply of batteries. Purchasing was definitely out of the question. That would have drained my pocket piece (pocket money) which was accumulated from profit from selling Christmas trees and the gifts and tips from adult relatives.

The tube radios in use back in those pre- transistor days were powered either by mains supply or a 90 volt battery pack which seemed to weigh a ton. It was a common site to see radio batteries being sunned on window sills "to keep the power up". When a battery pack became too weak to power a radio, we youngsters would strip it to find a set of individual batteries with sufficient power for our hobby projects. A used radio battery was obtained by either picking up a discarded one or observing the window sills and 'booking' with neighbours for their dead batteries before they threw them out.

Books from the Public Free Library (National Library) were a treasure house of ideas for hobby projects and experiments. That's how I learned about parallel and series wiring, how to wind electromagnets and make simple electric motors, among dozens of other useful and exciting topics.

Sue Tang and Sue Wo shop was a general store in the true meaning of the word general. Overlooking the brown river, the imposing two-story structure was sited just north of the Sprostons Stelling. At that shop one could purchase from a pound of flour to a suit length, a gallon of rum or even an outboard engine. There were several chicken meshed cages on the counter, but the one that interested me most stood between the grocery and hardware sections. That was the cage with the torchlight and cycle bulbs. In addition to those bulbs I purchased, I was lucky after some reasoning and persuading to be given two boxes of bulbs of questionable condition. Some were bad but some were definitely good.

Next item ------wire. Explosives were sometimes used in the bauxite mines to blast and loosen the ore. A residue from that activity was an abundance of pieces of detonator wire which was generally called simply 'blasting wire'. Almost every home had pieces of blasting wire as a general utility item. It was used for tying and stitching and even as served as curtain rods. A blasting wire basket was a weaving wonder and often a prized possession.

Bunny Alleyne, whose first name was really Randolph, was my best friend at that time. The Alleynes lived about four houses from us and Mr. Alleyne worked as blaster in the bauxite mines. I had to sort, clean and join the pieces which Bunny secured for me. That, therefore solved my wire problems.

Next, I attempted to strap the wire to the bulbs but encountered problems with the base of the bulbs. I, therefore had to devise a type of socket. A hollowed out cork stopper with pieces of silver paper (foil) from discarded Lighthouse cigarette boxes proved to be the perfect socket. So it was off to the shops for all the cork I could lay my hands on.

The cycle and torchlight bulbs were plain so, for colour, I wrapped some in left over kite paper which was put up for the next Easter. Others had to be painstakingly hand painted.

Coloured crepe paper and foil were used to disguise the cork sockets and make them look like decorations.

The lights were placed on the Christmas tree, the wires connected to the concealed batteries at the base and ...........lights. But only some of the bulbs lit up. After what appeared to be an eternity of twisting and fixing the lights all came on. Alas, I had done it. I had my own LIGHTED CHRISTMAS TREE.

Our house sat on a four corner so I placed the tree at the western end of the small living room from where it could be seen from the front and side of the house. The fact that we had no street lights made that tree look all the more brilliant.

I was pleased with my achievement but something was still not quite right. The lights did not blink.

I recalled a Traffic Lights project from one of the library books and decided to use that method for blinking the lights. The list of required items were: an electric motor from a battery-operated toy, the thin metal seal from a Klim milk or Ovaltine can, a circular piece of wood and a few fine nails.


Pieces of the thin metal were tacked to the circular piece of wood so that wood and metal would alternate. A light weight arm was fashioned from the same foil and would work like a turntable arm. The motor was fixed to the centre of the circular board. The board would turn like a record and the arm would touch metal and wood alternately. When contact was made with the metal the lights came on and went out when the arm passed over the plain wood.

That was mission complete. Our Christmas tree not only had lights, but blinking lights. I went out onto the street and gazed at the tree in the corner of the house and I felt real good. Perhaps it was the only such tree in all Wismar. Only perhaps, I never checked, I never knew for certain.

The years have rolled on by the decades, but I thank The Almighty that I can sit back in the company of my family, look at the tree my sons decorate, admire the blinking lights, spare a pleasant thought for my mom and listen to HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING. A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!