Memories of Christmas yesteryear

Dear Editor,

Celebrating the Christmas season years ago is etched in the minds of Guyanese nationals settled in North America. So many fun happenings and events were associated with the season prior to the 1990s, although life was difficult. And during the season, people of different ethnicities put aside differences and got together for celebrations – going for a trip to the town from the rural areas or visiting relatives and friends or worshiping, while the children played with toys. In New York, they often reminisce about the basket of memories left behind celebrating the end-of-year season; there was not much around the country but people had a joyous time with the little available to them. It used to be peaceful (except for the period of the kick-down-the-door banditry that was stamped out by Desmond Hoyte) and the races largely lived together. They had to because life was tough.

The Christmas season in years gone by (and still does today) offered the opportunity for renewal within the home (unless already done for Diwali or Eid). Old curtains were replaced with those reflecting the season; the house was completely redecorated; the walls were repainted; new furniture and a carpet may be acquired. In some homes, polishing and varnishing of old furniture and the floor were done. New cushions would be in place along with new spreads on the beds and new pillows to welcome the new season – similar to what is done in North America among many Caribbean people. The lawns were immaculately kept and tree trunks white-washed. The yard was cleaned. The Christmas tree in the home, if affordable, and or a tree on the front yard was lit up with moderate amounts of colourful lights. There were some decorative lights in or around the home; but black-outs were always a problem in the 1970s and 1980s.

There existed none of the lavish decorations and trimmings that brighten up entire neighbourhoods as compared with the earlier period. There was a special sound in the air (music bells, both religious and secular, Western and Indian songs, special radio programmes). There was much joy illustrated by laughter, blowing horns and whistles, popping toy guns, crying dolls, the engines of toy vehicles, etc. There was (still is) a certain smell (curry and massala dishes, the fruit cake, ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, redone furniture and new curtains, bedspreads, etc). There was a special aromatic scent wafting in the air that was very appetizing.

People sent Christmas cards overseas to relatives and friends. The cards were imported reflecting the temperate conditions in these countries – white snow, leafless trees, etc. But today, the pictures are more reflective of Guyanese realities of warm sunshine. Christmas time was associated with phone contacts and radio messages with loved ones across the seas.

People looked forward to radio programmes that carried telephone greetings recorded and packaged as a programme aired on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Everyone gathered around the radio hoping for a shout out. A phone call or telecommunication prior to the 1990s was almost impossible. Most of the international calls were from America, Canada, and the United Kingdom because most Guyanese could not afford the cost.

Today, people call one another at Christmas time regardless of location, with many calls originating from Guyana thanks to cheap internet phone rates and the magic jack. Christmas goods and services used to start early (end of November) and as such radio started Christmas programming much sooner than, say, in North America – around mid-November right after Diwali and Eid celebrations. What a joy it was to hear an overseas greeting.

The season was (and still is) associated with the masquerade band performing and playing its unique brand of music on special instruments, accompanied by colourful costumed characters dancing. The masquerade band would move along the streets and roadways entertaining for a donation.

The performers would stop in front of a house, playing and dancing and even entered into yards dancing for the entertainment of the household that responded with donations. Today, the masquerade bands perform in parts of Flatbush for donations and some even get sponsorships.

The churches had nativity plays. Schools held concerts and parties and students sang carols. Some of these are still practised in Guyana.

The season was associated with giving gifts even among the very poor. Toys, games and clothes were some of the favourite children’s gifts; today it is electronics. Children were told that their gifts were brought by Father Christmas and that they should hang socks and swear not to be bad or use curse words. Gifts were opened on Xmas morning with squeals of delight from the children.

Christmas was a time for a family get together. Families prepared an assortment of curried meats and other dishes, cakes and other goodies served with traditional home-made drinks. Relatives, friends and co-workers were invited for a hearty meal. But one did not need an invitation for a meal; it was traditional for families to expect uninvited visitors some of whom may be complete strangers. Everyone looked forward to a delicious meal on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day. Among the main items served were home-made (black or sponge) cake, ginger beer, mauby or sweet drinks. One was lucky to get a piece of imported apple, grapes, walnuts, dates, etc, even before they were banned. Some were still smuggled in the country during the ban; even cherries, raisins, prunes, etc, were smuggled into the country to make cake in spite of the crack-down by authorities to discourage their consumption. The men took to drinking for several days as factories were not grinding cane or milling rice.

The season was also a time for new clothes and new movies and a visit to the horse races or to town to enjoy ice cream and other delights. Many people would go to the cinema to view hit movies from India or Hollywood.

Oh what memories they are of yesteryear growing up as a child!

 Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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