Every year, hundreds of Guyanese living in the Diaspora begin packing barrels and boxes to post ‘home’, some as early as June/July. In many cases, it’s because they’re spending Christmas in Guyana and want to share more than they can carry in the token one or two suitcases they’re allowed on most flights.
But every year, hundreds more can only reminisce on the Guyanese Christmases of their childhoods or recent pasts. Four Guyanese living in Bristol, United Kingdom; Houston, Texas and Kentucky in the US and Tortola, BVI tell Lifestyle what they miss about Christmas ‘back home’. A recurring theme is ‘I’ve been away too long.’ Perhaps this reliving of the memories will turn their feet toward these shores.
Speaking of feet, Anne Lyken-Garner, who grew up in Berbice and now lives in England misses being able to step outside at Christmas time in sandals and a strap dress! Who wouldn’t?
Said Anne, “I’ve been asked a lot of questions about Guyana and about my identity as a Guyanese. Some of the answers to those questions require a lot of thinking and sometimes, I have no idea of how to answer them. I guess this is because I’ve been away for so long.”
Anne is an author, blogger and editor. Two of her recent books, which focus on her childhood, Sunday’s Child and Fair of Face, are currently available on Amazon, along with several other self-help books she has written over the years. She is currently working on getting Sunday’s Child into a local bookstore.
“This is probably the easiest question to answer, as I’ve reminisced about it for years,” Anne said in response to what she misses about a Guyanese Christmas. “The thing I miss most… is the heat.”
She misses, “…being able to go out to a party on Christmas Eve without worrying about wrapping up in a heavy coat and scarf. These are things we take for granted, but until we can no longer enjoy them, we don’t grasp the true freedom the warm weather allows us. I miss being able to eat garlic pork on the veranda – outside, under the blue sky and shining sun.
“I miss stepping in the grass barefoot on Christmas Day, running around and chucking water at family members. I miss waking up early to the song of the blue sakies in the trees nearby, knowing it’s Christmas Day and I don’t have to get up and get ready for work. I miss the sun shining down on my skin, browning it to a nice golden colour, as I sit on the beach with friends eating spicy fried chicken and channa. I miss everything about a hot Christmas.”
She realises that her family cannot fathom what Christmas in the sunshine feels like. “They can’t empathize with my nostalgia because all they have ever known is a Christmas beside the fireplace. One in which you must wrap up before you go out; stay indoors if you want to keep warm, and wait a few months before you can feel the sun on your skin again.”
And if Anne had one Christmas wish, it would be “To be able to bring my husband and three children to Guyana for a perfect Christmas, where they can feel the hot sun shining down on their faces, colouring them a nice, healthy red.”
Michael A Serrao
For Michael Serrao, a former Georgetown resident living in Texas, his reminiscence takes him back to “an overload of the five senses: sound, sight, smell, touch and taste.”
It starts with the sound, in November, of Christmas carols on the radio: “With those familiar oldies providing the impetus to drive the truly unique Christmas spirit which is so indelible to the Guyanese cultural DNA. The air is accompanied by the steady staccato of exploding squibs, and complemented by the colourful tapestry of costumes that adorn the ubiquitous masquerade bands featuring the Mad Bull, Mother Sally, dancers, flutist, and drummers.”
Michael modestly counts himself “fortunate” to have been among two sets of melodious carol singers who went to various institutions, residences, and neighbourhoods.
He recalls too the preparation of many feasts including grocery shopping for all the various menu ingredients. His list included, “the fruits for the black cake, hunting for the genuine Northwest casareep to make the pepperpot, and the choice cuts of pork, cowheel, and oxtail for the garlic pork, roast pork, and pepperpot.
“The oven is usually given a marathon workout in this season as apart from the roast pork, there is the baked ham, chicken, and freshly baked bread to complement the pepperpot. Of course, the special beverages to accompany these Christmas delicacies include ginger beer, mauby, and sorrel drinks.”
Michael’s recollection took him back to the “deep, transformational cleaning – clearing out rooms, polishing floors, washing windows, scrubbing/scraping stairs, changing curtains/blinds, and cleaning the yards.”
And the season would not be complete, in his estimation, without the constant bustle of gift shoppers aiming to score bargains at the shops, markets, and sidewalk vendors.
Said Michael, “Perhaps, the most underlying characteristic that makes the Guyanese Christmas so special is its people. Irrespective of our political or socioeconomic situation, nothing suppresses the warmth and hospitality that people exhibit even more so at this time of year. From the friendly ‘Season’s Greetings!’… to the open sharing of food and drink…”
Channelling Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” Michael said, “This year for the first time in 22 years, this trip down memory lane has made me reflect that, a sixth sense – common –dictates it will not be another 22 years before I enjoy another Guyanese Christmas.”
Marcia Stokes (nee Appiah)
Marcia Stokes grew up on the East Bank Demerara and is currently resident in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
She was hit with the question as she was wrapping her head around preparations for that all-American November holiday, Thanksgiving, and said, “Although I appreciate the significance of this holiday it is not comparable with Christmas. And the Christmas I am thinking about is a childhood memory. I miss the amalgamation of different cultures in such a unique setting and the appreciation of another’s culture in spite of the differences.
“I miss the season’s rituals of cooking, baking, cleaning, and the spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ.”
Now a wife and mother of four lively boys, Marcia also runs a small business where she produces exquisite handcrafted gifts and unique and personalized stationery.
Part of Marcia’s recollection of Christmas Eve in Guyana involves food, “Cooking and baking with my mother ‒ pepperpot, garlic pork, souse, baked chicken stuffed with potatoes and giblets, black pudding, pholourie, wadeh, and black cake.”
What is unique about a Guyanese Christmas, she said, is the fusion of faith and culture. She recalled the “Cultural Centre Christmas productions, the cool seawall breeze, the calypso/soca music, midnight mass, Christmas pageantry in all the Christian faith communities, street masquerade with the Mad Cow! and Stretched-out magazine with Ron Robinson.”
For her it was a time when family and friends would “lime on Old Years’ Night not New Year’s Eve! I am the only person in my household now that calls it that. Simply calling it that takes me back home.
“Faith, family, friends, food and our culture in all of its colourful glory are what I miss most,” she said.
Her wish this Christmas is, “For my children to grow up in [a world] where no one is left out; everyone celebrates giving respect and consideration.
“The world is changing and I see this practice of humanity for each human being diminished and the rise of individuality threatening to obliterate that togetherness.”
Still as he throws his mind back to December 1, back in the day and the “breaking up of the house”, he questions, “Do they still do that? All window blinds come down; all carpets come up; cushions come up; plants are placed on newspaper, on the floor, because the little side tables are pulled. It was a MAJOR production.”
As a child he would have had to get through his end-of-term test at school, but spent time fantasizing about the “gun-an-sacket that you would get; whether it would be an Apache or a Peace Maker gun, with a Lone Ranger hat.” Then all the boys his age would be saving Milo or Ovaltine tins and pinching a penny from the change when they were sent to the market. “These pennies were for the carbon [which when placed in the tin and lit made a loud bang]. The steel wool, for the fireworks would come later,” he recalled.
Now a musician and music teacher, Derry remembers being pressed into service in the kitchen. He said, “Watch out for your fingernails, because, even though you’re an expert at grating coconut, having done it EVERY weekend for the cook-up and/or metagee, somehow, when it’s time to grate the sweet potato for the fly, you help to season the drink with some of your fingernail and knuckles.
“Next, it’s time to grind the fruits to set the black cake. Of course, you will be helping to mix the various other types of cake, and the mixing bowl is yours after the cake is poured.”
For him, the most boring part was going “into town with your mother and walking up and down, from Thani’s to Kirpalani’s to Lall’s to A H & L Kissoon, to check for material for the new window blinds and cushions and for the Berbice chair. Then it’s off to Bookers, Fogarty’s AND Bettencourt’s to check for the new carpets.”
Further preparation came when he had to help, “sandpaper the chairs in preparation for the new look. I could smell the turpentine now! I could also smell the Mansion floor polish. It’s time to get on all-fours to rub it on. After that, it’s time to do the twist, in order to shine it. You fold two old towels three times each, stand on them, then use your feel and waist as rotors, because there is no Hoover floor polisher yet.”
And more shopping: “Your father goes to ‘town’ buys the ‘war nuts [walnuts],’ ‘almond nuts’ and cashew nuts [and] puts them on top of the wardrobe in your parents’ bedroom, and he gives you ‘the look.’ You KNOW that you dare not touch until such time. Meanwhile, you’re helping your mother to measure the curtain rods against the windows (even though you’ve measured the windows about four times). Then you check the list of friends, relatives and godparents to make sure you have greeting cards for everyone. Then you have to post them. The longest line ever invented is at the Post Office! Smcheeewwww! You’re there for at least ten minutes; that’s forever, when you’re excited and want to go to see Father Christmas at Fogarty’s.”
Back then too, window shopping at night was a thing, Derry recalled, and the whole family went. “You’re hoping that they would pass by Auto Supplies, to see the toy display. Somehow, Auto Supplies always had the coolest toys.”
He, like the others, recalled the caroling and the masquerade bands. For him, the masquerade music had “A special, addictive flavour associated only with Christmas; it was like listening to garlic pork! The pork was the bass drum; the garlic, the kettle (snare) drum; the fine leaf thyme, the triangle; the wiri wiri pepper, the Penny Whistle. The colourful costumes added to the spectacle.”
And a “Christmas in GT would not be complete without the Christmas Eve night rush. Regardless of how early they start, the window blinds were always going up at nine o’clock Christmas Eve night, after coming back home from buying something or other in ‘town’. The fairy lights went up in the late afternoon, before we went to ‘town,’ without fail.”
Derry’s Christmas Day was a day for family. “You don’t even talk to your neighbour! You sit for lunch with your parents and siblings, wish each other Merry Christmas, burst the crackers and, then and only then, will you eat the ‘war nuts,’ the chocolates, the ‘ice apples’ and the other goodies. You play with your toys, enjoy your other gifts, and read your Christmas cards over and over. That’s Christmas Day.
“Boxing Day, on the other hand, that’s the day when the riot starts. Friends and their children come to visit, or you go to visit friends in the neighbourhood, and you play all the variations of Cowboy and Indians.
“Christmas in GT! There is no other like it!”