Masquerade at Christmas – A Guyanese thing

By Lakhram Bhagirat

As a child, one of the things that scared me the most but I also looked forward to was the masqueraders visiting our home on Christmas Eve night, beating their makeshift drums and dancing for our entertainment and their cash incentive. What made these masqueraders scary was their attire as well as their masks or ‘facies’, as we called them.

As the years progressed, I got involved; at that time, dancing masquerade was something only the guys did. We would start making our masks weeks before December 24 and start scouring the garbage heaps for discarded bottles and old kerosene stoves to make drums. On the day of the masquerade, we would go through our sister’s or mother’s clothing basket to find the right dress, stuff our chests, and venture off.

Timing was essential since there were a number of groups vying to see who would make the most money so that we could buy toys or whatever we wanted. The first group was the one most likely to make the most money, since people were usually more generous to that group. Over the years, the wearing of masks has fallen by the wayside, but masquerade persists.

Looking back at the history of masquerade in Guyana, it is said to have been a part of the traditions of the African slaves who were brought here during the slave trade. Slaves, who were forbidden to practise their traditions, were slightly less restricted during the Christmas season and were allowed to visit other plantations and revel with other slaves, with drumming and dancing in the streets also allowed at this time.

The dancing, drumming and elaborate costumes and effigies of the colonial masquerade bands reflected religious festival traditions of the Ibo and Yoruba tribes of West Africa during the time of the Harmattan (dry, dusty November–March winds blowing from the Sahara towards the west African coast) and harvest celebrations.

According to research, the Ibo and Yoruba believed that this was the time when their gods, dressed in costumes and masks, came to visit and perform dances.

While the slaves danced for entertainment, many of the spiritual traditions were retained in the masks and symbols that represented ancestors and gods, along with the acrobatics and costumes, which represented, or perhaps theatrically portrayed, stories of strength, agility, fertility, battle, evil and terror.

One of the few features that survived to contemporary times is the acrobatic agility displayed in the past by Koo Joo or Actor Boy. The stilt dancer performs these feats, as does the wild cow dancer. To a certain extent, the flouncers are expected to have similar skills.

The spectacle that was masquerade at Christmas declined over the years, particularly by the late 20th Century.  Recent efforts to revive the dying art form and tradition have seen collaboration between civil society and Government to host a symposium that looked at improving knowledge of the history of the tradition and its development and future in Guyana.

The masqueraders are becoming fewer and fewer as the years progress since many of the youths do not want to take on the tradition; however, there are a few who are fighting to preserve the masquerade’s rich history in Guyana.