Do you hear what I hear? A Guyana Christmas!

We’re all familiar with that comforting, nostalgic scent that fills our homes near the holidays. For some of us, it’s the fragrance of a fresh pine tree on which we’ll hang glass ornaments, crown with an angel or star topper and squirrel away presents under until Christmas morning arrives. Maybe that familiar aroma is a fresh batch of egg-nog and if the merriment is soaring, muddled with a swig of brandy. Christmas, in my traditional Guyanese home, is scented with year-old rum soaked fruits, homemade bread and pepper-pot stewing away on the stove—a tradition that is not far lived from those practiced today in the Caribbean.

Christmas in the Caribbean is as much a cultural event for non-Christians as it is religious for Christians. Offering a holiday getaway from the days of heavy workloads, the holiday season represents one of the few times per year that families can indulge in special foods, lots of drinks and a week of less work and more play.

The holiday season is one of exuberant jubilee for Indo-Caribbeans, but not before the home is prepared. Houses are thoroughly cleaned, decked with decorations, and stocked with the best provisions from local marketplaces. In some cases, packages filled with apples or what Indo-Caribbean refer to as ice-apples, grapes and other goodies will come streaming in from family in Canada or the United States. New furnishings—from furniture to drapery—are purchased to replaced the old stock, salvageable items are polished, washed and refurbished to nearly brand new, and walls are painted, revamping the home for the new year.

Greeting cards are as much a decorative piece for Indo-Caribbeans as wreaths are for North Americans. Homes—the inside more than outside—are laced with garlands of twine strung with multiple greeting cards which contain wishes for your happiest of Christmases and a great transition from the old year to the new. Fairy lights of various colors are hung and nylon stockings, socks or pillowcases are draped on doors in hopes that Father Christmas will bring an assortment of play-things and sweeties for sleeping children.

Food is a very important aspect of the Indo-Caribbean Christmas. Entire goats, cows, lambs, and multiple ducks or chickens are purchased and shared among the family, homes are filled with confections of all sorts and large batches of ginger beer are brewed.

The New Year will never greet an Indo-Caribbean, particularly Guyanese home with an empty pot, and so we cook-up–Cookup rice, that is. Customarily, a meal of cook-up-rice is prepared and a portion is left on the stove to ensure that the New Year doesn’t find the home void of food. The traditional dish is a fusion of rice, peas, salted or fresh fish and meats and scented with coconut milk and hot peppers–and as any cookup connoisseur will tell you, the best way to prepare it is with a traditional bush cook—that is, a makeshift fireside and a sturdy pot.

One eatable that is sure to make a cameo in any Caribbean home during the holidays is cake of any and all forms. This long time tradition begins at the start of the year when fruits—mainly raisins and dates—are blended and soaked in spiced Caribbean rum and left to age. The ingredients fuse into a robust mixture that is added to a cake base to make traditional Caribbean black cake and its lighter version, fruit cake. Eggs and orange peels are saved up weeks in advance, and when baking day arrives, they are hand beaten to perfection. The butter and sugar portion of the cake is whisked then set aside to melt in the heat until ready to be combined with the remaining ingredients. Once set into pans, the children will clean out the bowls wiping away all traces of cake batter to soothe their craving for the finished product. Indicatory of the holiday season is the constant traveling of a box oven between neighbors who will borrow what usually is the only box oven in the area and use it to accomplish all of their baking needs.

If you’re running low on cash from a season of extensive spending, you can always count on your sue-sue to help you out in these dire times. Monetary gifts from family and pay raises from the job are a normal part of the receiving end of the holidays. Otherwise, a box-hand raise may come in time for Christmas shopping. A box-hand is a money pool in which members of a gang contribute a specific amount of money every month for an allotted period of time and each month, one member collects the entire lot.

Do you hear what I hear? Certainly if you’re enjoying Christmas in the sun this year you’re sure to catch a few parang tunes–Christmas parang, ofcourse. Deriving from Spanish origins, parang has diffused into Caribbean culture, infiltrating the festivities in various nations including Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica. Prang will blast from stereos CARICOM-wide, singing songs of an iceless Christmas, Santa’s quest for a wife and the insatiable desire of a piece ah pork as a sole Christmas wish. Closer to Christmas day, carolers will parade through towns, playing numerous instruments and singing an array of Christmas songs—many with a Caribbean spin.

Parents may take their children into their local town to have a visit with Father Christmas. Togged in their Sunday best, the children relish the opportunity to meet with him and collect their wrapped present—usually a game of snakes-and-ladders—which they will brag about during their annual Christmas party at school. Children dress in their formal wear as photos will be taken, perhaps their only one for the year, and join their classmates and teachers for a meal of chowmein and fried rice, drinks, cake and music to engage the them in a lively dance.

On Christmas morning children usually wake to find various gifts from Father Christmas waiting in their stockings. Stocking fillers commonly consist not of toys but rather an assortment of walnuts, ice-apples, whistles and a bladder—the Indo-Caribbean alias for balloon. The rest of the day is spent playing with their new toys as men get sauced up from alcohol and the women prepare their Christmas feast of chicken curry, dhal and rice.

With all the elaborate preparations and the multitude of foods that are prepared, Christmas time in the Caribbean still boils down to one common denominator—a time to enjoy life in festive sporting and for the one time in the year, indulging in the best the season has to offer—that which would not be affordable or attainable during the rest of the year.

Just as quickly as the last morsel of cake disappears, so does the holidays and it’s quickly back to life in the fields where memories of the past Christmas lingers and dreams of the coming one brews.

Special contributor: Bovika Gulchand, Teacher of Swami Purnananda Secondary School.

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Indo-Caribbean World, December 23, 2010

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