By MURPHY BROWNE
May is the month when we really begin to believe that summer is not something we imagined, it is not a mirage and it is almost here. Mittens, scarves and winter coats are things of the past, relegated to the back of our closets. Old man winter begins to loosen his tenacious grip on the earth, snow is a dim memory and we begin to see people who we have not seen since the Labour Day weekend. Anticipating summer, some brave souls even venture out wearing summer garb (shorts, t-shirts, sandals etc.)
Although I have been experiencing this phenomenon for more than half of my life, every year that I experience another spring, I marvel that I have survived another winter. I marvel that after spending the first two decades of my life in a country where there are two seasons I have survived living in a country where for almost eight months of the year I huddle in heavy winter coats with my neck swaddled in woollen scarves and my feet encased in layers of socks and winter boots.
In the South American country where I was born there are two seasons “dry” and “wet.” On Guyana’s coastland where the majority of the country’s 777,000 people (2009) live there are two wet seasons (May to July) and (November to January) and two dry seasons (February to April) and (August to October). In Guyana’s interior region (Rupununi) the wet season and dry season are each six months long. The wet season from the end of April to the end of September and the dry season the rest of the year. Unlike Canada, the temperature in Guyana does not dip below 12°C even in the Rupununi where, by Guyanese standards, it can be very cold at night. While in December Canadians might be freezing in teeth chattering 0° weather singing of Jack Frost nipping at their noses, people in Guyana would be out in 28° weather enjoying masquerade bands or listening to a Guyanese calypsonian sing “Why should I leave Guyana and go outside to perish in the winter?”
The most important day in May for Canadians is Victoria Day. The Victoria Day weekend in May is the signal for gardeners to begin resuscitating their gardens since they are reasonably confident that there will be no more frost until the following winter.
Victoria Day was established in Canada to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819) who, as the reigning monarch, signed the British North America Act (BNA) which created the Dominion of Canada in 1867 (renamed in 1982 the Constitution Act, 1867). After Victoria’s death in January, 1901, the Parliament of Canada voted to establish an annual holiday in her honour on May 24 or May 25 if May 24 fell on a Sunday.
In the Guyana of my youth May 1 was the most important day in May because it is Labour Day when we celebrate the lives and contributions of workers. It was also an important day for children because communities throughout Guyana crowned a May Queen and children danced around the Maypole in brilliantly coloured outfits as they plaited equally brilliantly coloured ribbons around the Maypole.
This practice of crowning a May Queen and plaiting ribbons around a Maypole was a holdover of British colonization of Guyana which was British Guiana until May 26, 1966.
Although Guyanese did not celebrate Victoria Day, there is a statue of Victoria in front of Guyana’s High Court on the Avenue of the Republic in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city. This statue, which remains standing there today 44 years after Guyana gained its political independence from Britain, is a testament to the influence of the British (1831-1966) colonization of the former British Guiana.
For many years some African Guyanese sang Victoria’s praises mistakenly thinking that she had freed them from chattel slavery. This is surprising since Victoria did not become the British monarch until 1837 (crowned June 28, 1838) while slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834. It was perhaps the fact that Victoria was the reigning monarch following the four-year apprenticeship period (1834-1838) when Africans received “full emancipation” that in some Africans’ imagination meant that she granted them their freedom.
The elders of my community in Berbice scoffed at the idea of any member of the British monarchy deserving praise for ending chattel slavery. They insisted that the British royal family had benefited from the blood, sweat and tears of our enslaved ancestors and did not deserve any songs or words of praise from us. Any benefits that we had acquired including the land that was bought where villages were established by formerly enslaved Africans came from our hard work.
Many of these villages were given British names including Rose Hall on the Courentyne in Berbice which was established as a village after land was bought by formerly enslaved Africans. The racialized people of Guyana did not benefit from the British or their monarchy so there was no need for Guyanese to celebrate Victoria Day.
In Canada, the Victoria Day weekend in May is taken seriously with fireworks and celebrations throughout the nation because the British culture is paramount in this country. Those of us who are not British can enjoy the glorious weather, the time off from work and look forward to the celebrations that reflect us that will happen throughout the summer. Some of those celebrations are Muhtadi International Drumming Festival which includes drummers from across the globe performing at Queens Park (June 5-6), Afrofest which is a celebration of African culture also at Queens Park (July 10-11) and Caribana (July 31) which last year brought more than one million visitors to Toronto and $438 million to the Canadian economy. Incidentally, the Caribana parade this year will take place on the day before Emancipation Day (August 1).