Thirty years ago in the Stabroek Market – as Christmas drew near and there was usually a noticeable shift in the air – it was not so uncommon to hear jolly cries of “Merry Christmas!” as shoppers and vendors went about their businesses.
Now, with the advent of numerous supermarkets and convenience stores, one is more likely to hear, “Wha’ yuh shopping, sweetheart?” than any holiday greeting.
The Stabroek Market has been a part of Guyana’s history for 133 years after it was declared open on November 1, 1881.
Especially around Christmas, the market was the one-stop shop for everything and even after stores like Fogarty’s and Booker’s sprung up years later, many persons still flocked to the market to get their shopping done.
These persons, like vendors, flow from one generation to the other; children who unwillingly fetched their grandmother’s baskets when market day rolled around were doing the same to their own sulky grandchildren, decades later.
As regards the vendors, generations of families sell in the market. Like a family heirloom, the (stall) job is passed down, in some cases, from grandmother to mother, from mother to daughter.
Faye, a vendor in the market, remembers fondly the huge crowds of persons who swarmed to the market to complete their Christmas shopping.
As a third-generation vendor, Faye has almost seen it all.
“For me, Christmas at the then time used to even smell like Christmas; it had a different atmosphere in the market. It got you in the mood, got you in the Christmas spirit,” said Faye.
As a child, Faye would spend time with her grandmother in the market and watch the comings and goings of the shoppers. She later became a vendor herself in the late 80s and conducted her meat selling business, on the very spot both her grandmother and mother sold.
“Back then, when we start getting into October you just know that Christmas is definitely coming,” Faye said. She went on, “Around outside the market you would know that Christmas is in the air and it was reflected inside the market too.”
According to Faye, the market had indeed been the popular spot to shop and had been much different then. There were not as many stalls, she said, and many of the vendors had been older folks.
Vendors selling outside had also been in smaller numbers and had sold mainly “small stuff” such as candies and popular Christmas items such as grapes and walnuts while alcohol was a rarity.
“We didn’t have all these boutiques and all these clothes selling and stuff,” she pointed out. She added that the market had even sold furniture. Though the market was busy year-round, activity certainly picked up during the holidays. There was also a noticeable change in everyone’s mood, she said.
“Everybody at that time, even before the season get started, everyone wishing one another Merry Christmas. Around Christmas time you’d see people dressing up and putting up strings of light,” Faye said. She went on that even though things were hectic for the vendors, they would still make time to share well wishes.
“There’s a lot of hustle and bustle,” Faye said before continuing, “but when you ready to leave you gon’ still say have a blessed Christmas.”
Brenda Cameron, fondly known in the market as ‘Aunty Brenda’, also knows what Christmas in the Stabroek Market was like more than thirty years ago; like Faye, she has been selling since the 80s.
To her, Christmas was the best time of the year, particularly for vendors. “At that time, I used to feel so great because whatever you had putting out for Christmas, you had good sales,” she said. The popular items at Christmas included cassareep for pepperpot, ground seasoning, mixed fruits and ginger for ginger beer, she said.
The atmosphere was also much different, she noted. “Oh, it was so great!” she exclaimed. “Everyone just laughed with you and yelled out, ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Merry Christmas’. They still do…well, the big folks,” she said.
“What we did, we baked our black cakes and shared with one another,” she explained. She continued, “We would put on our music, put on our carols, especially in the main market area and you enjoy it. The atmosphere does be very nice and brings in the feeling of Christmas.”
She went on that each stall was festively decorated with balloons, fairy lights and tinsel while there was a palpable sense of kinship among the vendors.
“It was a nice sense of family,” she said before adding, “You find that on Christmas Eve, before going home, we hugged one another, embraced, and said, ‘Merry Christmas!’ and ‘see you!’”
With fondness, Aunty Brenda recalled one Christmas with a close friend of hers, a former vendor. “I had a wonderful neighbour who used to sell next to me; her name was Patsy Trim and we would sit down and we would sing Christmas carols together; loudly!” she laughed. “The other folks would sit and watch us and laugh, join in, and all thing. We made it so merry around Christmas,” she said with a smile.
‘You don’t get those feelings now’
Both Faye and Brenda agreed that things have drastically changed in the Stabroek Market from the days they warmly remember.
Sales have dropped, they said, along with the crowds and the Christmas spirit.
According to Faye, everything has moved to “a commercial scale” and instead of enjoying the season, “everybody just grabbing and grabbing.”
Brenda echoed similar sentiments and said, “Years back, before all those supermarket…a lot of crowd used to step in here and shop from us. Now? No…they prefer now to go to the supermarkets than to come at the market here.”
She explained that this is understandable; according to both women, the overall standards of the market have degraded greatly, particularly the wharf, and robbers are an issue.
Both women also said that sales have dropped due to the influx of vendors outside the market. “Some people now, instead of come at the back here, they just buy on the road and turn back. We in here are the last ones they come to,” Brenda said.
They further noted that the vendors are younger and do not get into the Christmas spirit as much and as quickly as the older folks.
“I find the young people are not holding Christmas like the folks before; until it comes to like two weeks before then you see everyone get real serious when the time coming close and just get crazy on the road,” Brenda noted.
Despite the changes, the older vendors still attempt to retain some sense of the old days. Brenda stated that she still decorates her stall, though she does it during the first week of December. She also tries to get the young vendors involved in the festivities but things are just not the same – and probably will never be the same again.
“The feelings that you used to get years back – 25 to 30 years ago – you don’t get those feelings now; they are gone,” Brenda sadly noted.