Mooma, Mooma would you like to join your sonny?
I am over here, happy in the mother country
Darling, for the Christmas, your son would be really jumping
Listen to the chorus of what we all will be singing…
Drink a rum and a punch a crema, drink a rum
Is Christmas morning!
From “Drink a Rum”, by Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts (April 18, 1922 – February 11, 2000).
As an adult whenever I hear this song I cannot help wondering if Lord Kitchener was really encouraging his elderly mother to drink alcohol on Christmas morning.
The calypso also brings back wonderful memories of spending Christmas with the McLeods (my aunt and her family) at 420 Mora Street in Mackenzie (Guyana). I was about eight years old the first time I spent Christmas visiting my mother’s older sister, her husband and daughter in Mackenzie.
We travelled up the Demerara River on the steamer R.H. Carr. The journey was too long for an eight-year-old to stay awake so my father’s cousin, who was a member of the staff on the R.H. Carr, lent us his bunk bed. I was asleep in no time while Papa disappeared with his cousin.
When I woke up it was time for us to disembark at Sproston’s Wharf/Mackenzie Stelling. Some of those memories are dim, after all this was several decades ago. However, I do remember Lord Kitchener’s “Drink a Rum” blasting from Mr. Anthony’s (my aunt’s next door neighbour) jukebox early on Christmas morning. His neighbours (including the children) welcomed and enjoyed the music which signalled for us the beginning of the most enjoyable day of the year.
Our lives have certainly changed since those days. My mother and her five siblings have all transitioned and so have Mr. and Mrs. Anthony. My father and my Aunty Vilma Liverpool seem to be the only ones of that generation who are still with us. My aunt’s daughters (she eventually had four) have all immigrated to Europe and the USA and my siblings and I all live in Canada.
We still try to replicate the Christmas of our childhood but that is impossible. We can cook the food we ate during Christmas but the ambiance of a Guyanese Christmas cannot be transferred to the foreign shores where we now dwell.
Christmas in Guyanese households began with pepperpot for breakfast. Pepperpot is a uniquely Guyanese dish from the Native people of Guyana (Amerindians) but it has become the Christmas breakfast dish of choice for all Guyanese. Made with various meats seasoned with casareep (which is made by boiling bitter cassava), Guyanese pepperpot is best eaten with homemade bread.
The casareep preserves the meat so pepperpot can be reheated and served over several days and could last through to Old Year’s Night (New Year’s Eve). Cook-up rice is the meal of choice for New Year’s Day so the pepperpot is most likely demolished before the New Year.
Many of us return to Guyana at Christmastime to relive those times and connect with relatives and friends who remained in Guyana and those who left to live elsewhere. There are those Guyanese who return home every year to visit and those who return once or twice after spending decades living outside of the country.
The sights, sounds and smells of a Guyanese Christmas are unique. Children would wake up on Christmas morning to a seemingly new house where everything had been miraculously transformed overnight. The adults worked throughout the night to ensure that the floors and beautiful wooden furniture were sanded and polished, there were new window curtains, the walls were painted, etc.
It was almost like there had been elves at work because of all the work our elders put into making Christmas Day so special. We woke up on Christmas morning raring to open the presents that Father Christmas had mysteriously brought to our homes the night before. We really did believe all those gifts were from Father Christmas until we were about 11 or 12 years old. Not surprising, since Father Christmas knew exactly what we wanted for Christmas.
The presents he brought were mostly gender specific. There were usually water and cap guns, bats and other cricket paraphernalia for the boys. The girls mostly received dolls, dolls’ clothes, tea sets and kitchen gadgets. The boys and girls received books, clothes and shoes.
The Christmas cards from near and far (mostly from relatives and friends from Britain) were displayed and we had fun reading some of the greetings. We were also fascinated with the images of snow, snowmen and “real” Christmas trees growing in the snow.
In Guyana there are no evergreen trees resembling what is considered the traditional Christmas tree but artificial trees were a part of the decoration, complete with fake snow. The food is an important part of the festivities and on Christmas Day, all the adults were involved with the food preparation.
The amazing smell of Christmas lunch and dinner added to that unique smell of a Guyanese Christmas. The dining table seemed to groan under the weight of the food on Christmas Day. Lunch and dinner included roasted and baked chicken, garlic pork, pepperpot, roasted and baked duck, black cake, pickled onions, achar, ginger beer, mauby, sorrel and various types of liquor for the men. Family, friends, neighbours and even strangers were made welcome and invited to eat, drink and take food home when they visited on Christmas Day.
During my recent visit to Guyana (December 2011) I realized that I have not lost my childhood fear of Mother Sally and the mad cow, which is a traditional part of the Guyanese Christmas entertainment. Special entertainment was provided by the masquerade bands that travelled throughout the towns and villages.
The fearsome mad cow and Mother Sally were terrifying figures to many children as they flounced and danced to the sound of the kittle, flute and drum. I was scared witless at the sight of Mother Sally and the mad cow and would hide indoors until they were out of sight. The men and boys who accompanied the masquerade bands would perform amazing acrobatic movements as they flounced and danced to pick up money that was placed on the ground.
Some of the members of the masquerade bands would chant:
“Christmas comes but once a year and everyman must have his share, except old brother Willy in the jail drinking sour ginger beer.”
I could never get a satisfactory answer from any adults when I asked why “old brother Willy” was in jail every year at Christmastime.
In Guyana the celebration of Christmas is embraced by all Guyanese regardless of race, ethnicity and religion, although the celebration began in the 1600s with the arrival of the Dutch, the first Europeans who settled in Guyana.
The enslaved Africans probably embraced the celebration of Christmas because it was the one day of the year that their enslavers allowed them to have a respite from their backbreaking field work (the house slaves would have had to work as usual). After all, the slaveholder families would not cook their own meals on Christmas Day or clean their homes themselves.
Later generations of Africans who converted to Christianity celebrated the birth of Christ and attending church on Christmas Day was expected. The indentured labourers who arrived in Guyana from Madeira (May 3, 1835) were Catholics and added their Christmas traditions to those of the Africans, who imitated the British.
The indentured labourers who arrived from Asia (China – January 17, 1853 and India – May 5, 1838) arrived in then British Guiana with their religious beliefs intact but embraced Christmas and celebrated it as a secular holiday which included recognizing Father Christmas and the giving and receiving of gifts.
In Canada, Christmas is embraced by people of all religions as a secular holiday. Regardless of people’s religious beliefs, they are out shopping and looking for bargains at this time of the year. Christmas as celebrated by Christians gets such short shrift that you will frequently hear people referring to Christmas trees as holiday trees and instead of “Merry Christmas” they will wish “Happy Holidays.”
If you are celebrating Christmas or want to wish someone Merry Christmas don’t be shy. Say it loud and clear: “Merry Christmas!”