Remembering yesteryear’s Christmas in Guyana

Dear Editor,
Christmas was/is the most popular and largest of cultural celebrations in Guyana, the diaspora and throughout the Caribbean. Although a Christian holiday, it was/is widely celebrated by non-Christians (Hindus and Muslims who also are present in large numbers in the Caribbean). A Caribbean X-Mas was/is a secular-like holiday with gift-giving, feasting, exchanging cards, seasonal music, watching the (masquerade) bands, horse racing, visiting friends and relatives, etc. Neighborhoods were festooned with simple trimmings, balloons, varied lightings, and other decorations but not in abundance as exist today. People went out on Christmas eve for snacks and ice cream and purchasing toys for children.
The celebration of yesteryear is etched in the minds of Guyanese in the diaspora with a basket of memories. It is the main reason why many in the diaspora prefer to go “home” to be with relatives and relive that unique experience.
Christmas offered the opportunity for renewal within the home. Old curtains were replaced with seasonal curtains. The pickets, house walls and tree trunks would be washed or painted or white washed (with a special lime). Some acquired new furniture. Some people polished and varnished old furniture and the floor are done. New cushions would be in place along with new spreads on the beds and new pillows to welcome the new season. The lawns were immaculately kept. The decorated tropical Christmas tree on the front yard was lit up with simple lights.
The season produced a special feeling that is associated with certain sounds (music – both religious and secular, western and Indian, church bells, special radio programs, horns, whistles, bells, popping toy guns, crying dolls, etc. Christmas carols were very popular with choir singing in front of churches. Carols and Christmas songs were also played on the air and the radio stations. Businesses advertise their Christmas goods and services early and as such radio and television stations started Christmas programming in November.
Christmas had a certain smell (curry and massala dishes, the fruit cake, bread, ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, pine drink, new or redone furniture and new curtains, bed spreads, etc.). The aromatic scent wafted in the air and all the decorations and trimmings brightened up entire neighborhoods. There was a spirit of friendliness (expressed in smiles, handshakes, hugs, etc.).
Christmas was a time when people sent Christmas cards to each other and to relatives and friends around the world. People called one another at Christmas time – about the only time in the year to speak with friends because of the huge costs associated with call and the limited phone lines. Most of the international calls were from America, Canada, United Kingdom because of high costs for calls emerging from Guyana. But today many calls originate from the Caribbean because of reduced rates arising out of competition.
People looked forward for radio programs that carried telephone greetings recorded and packaged as a program from the diaspora and aired on Christmas Day or Boxing Day or New Years. These were later replaced with telex messages and subsequently by phone calls and internet messages and now whats app.
Christmas was the time for masquerade bands, performing and playing their special brand of music on special instruments, accompanied by colorful costumed characters dancing. The performers would stop in front of a house, playing and dancing and even entered into yards and danced entertaining households. The spectators generally offered cheers and money.
The season was associated with giving gifts primarily to children — toys, games and clothes are some of the favorite gifts. Children were told that their gifts were brought by Father Christmas and that they should hang socks and commit to being good. They were encouraged to go to bed by midnight so Santa can bring their gifts. Gifts were opened in the morning with squeals of delight from the children.
Christmas was a time for preparation of food, cakes and other goodies served with traditional homemade drinks. It was traditional for families to expect uninvited visitors. Among the main items served were black cake, ginger beer, (imported apples and grapes, walnuts, dates, sweet wine, etc. before they were banned).
The season was also a time to go to horse races and the cinema and many people went to the cinemas to view hit movies from India or Hollywood.
The Christmas holiday season extended over on Boxing Day and repeated itself for Old Year and New Year with similar activities.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram