Nostalgia and the Christmas season

The Christmas season is well under way and apart from the festive libations, the nostalgic juices are also in full flow. As families and friends are reunited at home and in the diaspora, much of the ‘ol’ talk’ inevitably turns to tales of Christmas past and the ‘good old days.’

Many memories focus in particular on the flavours and aromas of a Guyanese Christmas: the way dearly departed and still living older relatives conjured traditional dishes such as garlic pork, pepperpot, the Christmas ham and black cake, compared in all aspects to the contemporary efforts of their culinary heirs; recollections of the annual appearance of walnuts, ‘ice apples’ and grapes covered in sawdust, the treats imported just for the season before Mr Burnham’s bans; the delights of homemade mauby, sorrel and ginger beer as opposed to the headier joys of factory-manufactured brews and distillations; debates as to whether the food and drink prepared abroad really taste the same if there is no fine-leaf thyme, no real brown sugar from home or, inconceivably, no Demerara rum, not to mention the accompanying scent of freshly polished floors and furniture.

For most Guyanese, there’s nothing quite like a good, old fashioned Guyanese Christmas, even if in actual fact the changes wrought by time and distance mean that Christmas today may bear somewhat less resemblance to the Christmases of yesteryear. As the American newspaper columnist, Doug Larson, famous for his aphorisms, put it, “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” Or as the late American diplomat, George Ball, said, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.”

But nostalgia has become an integral part of the Guyanese condition. It may be that this is due, to a large extent, to our chequered history over the past 60 years, and the failure of successive governments to realise the rich potential of our country and its people. Equally, it may be because so many of our people have felt obliged to seek greener pastures overseas, with nostalgia being an inescapable aspect of the immigrant experience and the transition from one’s culture of origin to the culture of adoption. In both cases, nostalgia is inextricably intertwined with loss and separation – the loss of one’s childhood, the loss of loved ones, separation from family, friends and homeland, and the unmistakeable sense of our lovely, native land as a paradise lost.

To be sure, we Guyanese are in any case a sentimental people and particularly prone to nostalgia. Much as we tend to wallow, however, in the emotions of memory, nostalgia and loss, we know, even if only subconsciously, that the idea of fully recapturing the idealized past is as futile as Adam and Eve’s readmission to the Garden of Eden. But nostalgia is cathartic and Christmastime provides the ideal opportunity for the release of all kinds of emotions, as Christians are moved to reflect on the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ and as believers and unbelievers alike are moved by other spirits.

Dr Vibert Cambridge, Godfrey Chin, Ken Corsbie and Dave Martins, among others, have been showing in their various articles, reminiscences and musings, that nostalgia can be enlightening as a reminder of our origins and as a vital tool for cultural historians, as we contemplate our present and look towards our future. But it is perhaps instructive that in his Nostalgia 483: Christmas 2009 (SN, January 17, 2010), Mr Chin called last Christmas his “best ever.” In cataloguing the traditional fare savoured, the hectic round of social events and festive activities and the mixture of new and old that make a Guyanese Christmas so special, Mr Chin, the self-confessed “nostalgia buff” now in his “seventh decade,” shows that a hankering for the pleasures of a seemingly simpler bygone era does not necessarily exclude the enjoyment that life in the here and now has to offer.

Maybe, as the saying goes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But every year there is strong evidence that the spirit of the Guyanese Christmas lives on, fired by our collective nostalgia and our thus far unquenchable optimism, in spite of the many challenges we face and those still to come.

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