Memories of Easter growing up in Guyana

By MURPHY BROWNE

Hot cross buns!

Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns.

If ye have no daughters,

Give them to your sons.

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns.

Even though “Hot cross buns” is a British nursery rhyme, it was an integral part of celebrating Easter in Guyana. The reason is that Guyana, until May 26, 1966 was British Guiana, a colony of Great Britain.

Unlike Easter in Canada, there was no Easter bunny nor any eggs, chocolate or otherwise, in the Guyanese Easter celebration. Although Easter is supposed to be a Christian holiday, neither the Easter bunny nor hot cross buns have anything to do with Christianity.

The word ‘Easter’ is also pagan, supposedly from the pagan fertility goddess, Ishtar (Babylonian) or Eastre (Anglo-Saxon). The Easter eggs and bunny are also supposedly pagan symbols of fertility (and part of pagan spring rituals) that were incorporated into Christianity several centuries ago.

Hot cross buns also have a pagan history from early missionary attempts to convert the pagans of the British “isles”. The Christian church apparently adopted the pagan tradition of the buns separated into four quarters that represented the four quarters of the moon by reinterpreting it to represent the cross.

Although the majority (697,286) of Guyanese are African (30.2 per cent) and East Indian (43.5 per cent), Christianity is the dominant religion. Data from a 2002 census on religious affiliation indicates that approximately 57 per cent of the population is Christian: 17 per cent Pentecostal, 8 per cent Roman Catholic, 7 per cent Anglican, 5 per cent Seventh-day Adventist and 20 per cent for other Christian groups.

There are approximately 28 per cent Hindu, 7 per cent Muslim and 2 per cent for other beliefs, including Rastafari and Baha’i with 4 per cent of the population not professing any religion.

Guyana is an ethnically diverse country with not only Africans and East Indians but also Chinese, Europeans, Portuguese and a significant (nine groups) indigenous population.

Christianity is Guyana’s dominant religion because of the country’s colonial history. The colonial European administrators made Christianity a prerequisite for social acceptance and, in many cases, education and employment. The enslaved Africans, stripped of their languages, names, cultures and religious practices, were forced to embrace the foreign beliefs of their enslavers. After several generations, this was all that many of them knew.

The arrival of indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery, East Indians from the Indian sub-continent (May 5, 1838) and Chinese (January 12, 1853) with their language, religion and culture intact did not lessen the British/Christian stranglehold on Guyanese culture.

The first group of Portuguese indentured labourers arrived in Guyana (May 3, 1835) with a Catholic celebration of Easter. Christianity remained the means of achieving an education with schools founded and run by missionaries and the means of social mobility, only available through jobs in companies owned by Europeans e.g., the Booker companies.

By 1950, Bookers Agricultural Holdings owned 15 of the existing 18 sugar estates, a large cattle ranch, the largest taxi service in the country, large wholesale and retail stores selling groceries, motor vehicles, furniture, household appliances, clothing, hardware, building supplies, sports goods, farm machinery and other equipment. During that period, some Guyanese sarcastically referred to the country as “Bookers Guiana” instead of British Guiana.

It is therefore not surprising that Easter, a supposedly Christian celebration, has been embraced by Guyanese of every religious belief and race.

After the solemnity of Good Friday, the day that the faithful believe Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday, when those who could afford it attended church in their best, new outfits, everyone looked forward to Easter Monday.

Good Friday was the longest day of the year for children who were not allowed to do anything except breathe. Some families attended church all day while others remained at home and fasted. Children, prevented from playing any games, reading or even speaking above whispers, could only sleep and pray for the day to end.

The many superstitions surrounding Good Friday could very well be made into a screenplay for a horror movie. Among them were tales of trees that bled and animals that spoke, but only at noon or at midnight.

Of course, those stories were told to prevent children from venturing outside on that holiest of holy days.

Good Friday was the day my father, dressed in his best suit, would saunter off to the nearest Anglican church reminiscing about his childhood days as an altar boy. He would prepare his clothes from the night before because no one was allowed to even iron a shirt on Good Friday.

With his precise military strut, trousers creased sharp enough to cut and shoes shined to a mirror sheen (the result of many years of police training), he never failed to garner many admiring and even some envious glances. Throughout my childhood, I do not think my father ever missed a Good Friday service. In whatever part of Guyana we were living (even in the Rupununi, which was overwhelmingly Catholic), he could always find an Anglican service to attend.

Easter in the Rupununi is celebrated a bit differently than Easter on the coastland of Guyana. Kite flying, even though not a British activity, is part of the Guyanese Easter ritual for people living on the coastland. The annual rodeo, complete with barefooted Amerindian vaqueros, is unique to Lethem. The rodeo, which lasts from Saturday to Easter Monday, includes wild bull riding, horse racing, wild cow milking, wild bronco riding, steer roping, etc.

The vaquero, who manages to remain the longest time on the back of the wild, bucking bronco/horse is declared the winner. Anyone can try their hand at winning a free pig if they can catch and hold on to the “greasy pig”, which is another hilarious event at the Lethem rodeo.

In Bartica, Essequibo, the annual Regatta is an Easter tradition, with participants showing off their skills in several water sports.

In other areas on Guyana’s coastland, kite flying on Easter Monday is a cultural event. The colourful singing kites are a sight to behold.

The seawall at Kitty, Georgetown and # 63 Beach on the Courentyne coast are two of the most famous places for kite flying in Guyana. Extended families with several generations (infants, parents, grandparents, even great grand parents) pack baskets of food and spend the day socializing with friends, neighbours and, sometimes, strangers as they fly their kites.

My favourite memories of Easter Monday are of the McLeod family (my mother’s older sister, her husband and daughter) visiting from McKenzie and the extended family heading off to the Kitty seawall to fly our kites. My father was stationed at Eve Leary (police headquarters in Georgetown) and our family lived on William Street in Kitty.

We were all dressed in our new Easter outfits as the adults fetched the baskets of food that had been prepared the night before and some of it early on Easter Monday morning. The menu included curry chicken, dhal puri, pholourie, black pudding, fried rice, chow mien, cheese rolls, cheese straws, patties, pine tarts, ginger beer, mauby and sweet drinks. There were no hot cross buns; those had been devoured on Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday.

tiakoma@aol.com

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