You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy Christmas, but it probably helps. After all, putting aside the shopping, gift-giving and carousing; putting aside the commercialisation, the profit-driven consumerism and the excessive consumption associated with the season, Christmas is still, essentially, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Notwithstanding the tendency towards excessive political correctness in more developed countries than ours, with the downplaying of the Christian message of salvation through the birth of Jesus and the avoidance of public displays of Christian symbols – lest they offend the easily offended – and, in spite of worrying signs of growing intolerance, persecution even, in other countries where Christianity is a minority religion, we Guyanese, generally, are only too happy to offer the world a lesson in multiculturalism and tolerance. Religious faith hardly matters at all, as we celebrate the season of goodwill and – as Ian McDonald reminded us last Sunday – the gift of love.
Perhaps, on a subliminal level, we are simply reflecting the fact that many of the time-honoured and popular characteristics of Christmas have their origins in pagan traditions mostly associated with the northern winter solstice: the setting of Jesus Christ’s birthday on December 25; the ringing of bells to drive out evil spirits; Christmas trees evolving from evergreen boughs and pagan tree worship; Christmas lights and decorations to bring brightness and warmth to the midwinter gloom; carol singing recalling the Anglo-Saxon custom of wassailing; all now indispensable elements of a traditional Christmas.
Indeed, these centuries-old examples of religious syncretism find modern-day expression in the various influences and adaptations derived from the globalisation of Christianity and the resulting rich diversity of Christmas today, occasioned by differences in climate and culture around the world.
In Guyana, we are blessed with warm weather and so enjoy a Christmas season spent more out and about than huddled indoors around a source of warmth to escape the winter without. We have our masquerade bands coming out at Christmas. We have our wonderful and varied cuisine, our unique pepperpot, garlic pork and black cake, our mauby, sorrel and ginger beer, and, of course, our fine Demerara rum. We have, in spite of our individual and collective challenges, our indefatigable optimism, good humour and life-affirming joy; and we have our own particular brand of nostalgia, forged over decades of migration and separation, nostalgia for family and old friends, nostalgia for the good times, for our paradise lost and for the paradise we yearn to regain.
You don’t have to be a Guyanese to enjoy a Guyanese Christmas – whether in Guyana or in the diaspora – but it probably helps. Year after year, we throw ourselves into the rituals of Christmas, some of us renewing our faith, most of us reaffirming our common humanity, through – if we may turn to Ian McDonald again – “gifts renewing love”. And as we remind ourselves and our readers every year, we delight in this special time, most of us making a huge effort, as we endeavour to make the Christmas season a memorable one for our loved ones, particularly our children.
Some of us also try to ensure that the less fortunate in our midst are not forgotten. They are to be commended; more of us should be so moved to help others, and not just at Christmas. But if it is at Christmas that we glimpse the type of caring, nurturing society that we would like to be and should be, then perhaps we need to find some way to package the spirit of Christmas, the true Guyanese spirit of hospitality, generosity and good-fellowship that makes this country so special. This is not a new message, of course; maybe we just need to try a little harder.
Merry Christmas, Guyana!