No matter where we may roam, being home for the holidays is special. It is the time that we connect, and reconnect with family, friends and loved ones. Being home for the holidays makes us appreciate the space and place for the unique ways in which we celebrate that makes it particularly Guyanese, as individual families, and as a society.
Ask anyone who celebrates Christmas and they will give you a list of rituals in which they partake to mark the occasion. Even when we are not at home (in Guyana) for the holidays, we reenact and recreate many of these practices to keep us connected. One of the most popular of rituals is the ‘breaking up’ of the house – the moving of furniture to one side of the house and covering them. The purpose is two-fold: to make for easy cleaning, polishing and varnishing; the other is for the place to look ‘plain’ so that when, at the appointed time, the new curtains are put up, flowers arranged in vases, lights and decorations strung up and the tree adorned, the house looks stunning, celebratory and festive. Years ago a good friend of mine in Trinidad who had a Guyanese housekeeper called me, confused, to ask what was this Guyanese ‘thing’ about breaking up the house?! “I walk in here and Brenda has everything turned upside down and covered up!” Five days before Christmas my friend called again, “Gurrl, the house looks great!”
Being a multi-cultural society, Guyanese, regardless of religious persuasion celebrate Christmas in some form or the other, whether that is leaving up the fairy lights after Diwali or fixing up the house in some way. We, as Guyanese, love celebrating each other’s festivals, from Eid to Diwali, from Christmas to Phagwah.
We go on a spending spree for the holidays, not only to decorate and spruce up our homes and surroundings but also on clothing and accessories for the multiple events we will attend. We create a separate budget for food because at the heart of all the celebrations is food. While we may scour books, magazines, television and the Internet for recipes to make the Christmas table even more inviting, it is the traditional dishes that truly make us feel right at home during the holidays. It is why we go home, for a taste of the familiar, for comfort.
We are planners. Meats and poultry are ordered weeks in advance with detailed and precise instructions given to butchers, stall owners etc about the preferred cuts and weight. Beverages too are ordered because there are certain items and flavours, reminiscent of this time of the year, that sell quickly in large quantities – alcoholic and non-alcoholic. As the saying goes, ‘we doh mek sport.’
The taste of the holidays is as much about the smells as it is about the physical act of eating and drinking the seasonal favourites. The soundscape of pressure cookers hissing and whistling tells us that Pepperpot is being made or meat and peas are being tenderized for Cook-up Rice. No scented candles or air fresheners are needed when the gentle roll of sorrel, cinnamon and cloves yield a maddeningly sweet aroma that you can’t seem to get enough of. The warmth in the house on a cool evening as a clove-studded ham cooks in the oven is inviting and appetizing. You want to wait up long enough for the ham to rest once it is out of the oven just so that you can cut a succulent slice or two and sandwich it between the slices of fresh homemade bread. You want it to be a private moment, just you, the ham and the bread.
We have quite an appetite for bold flavours that manifests itself when we mop up the rich Pepperpot ‘gravy’ with Aniseed bread; eat decadent, boozy Christmas cake chased with ice-cold, spicy, fruity ginger beer and the eating of briny Garlic Pork that lights up the house when cooked. Not to be outdone are the heady aromas emanating from large, cauldron-like pots of mutton, goat, or wild meat curries.
While we can eat and drink many of these items throughout the year, the appeal and enjoyment is truly felt when we have them in familiar surroundings, surrounded by familiar faces, when we are home for the holidays.
Merry Christmas Everybody!