It's the most wonderful time of the year With the kids jingle belling And everyone telling you 'be of good cheer' It's the most wonderful time of the year There'll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting And carolling out in the snow There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories Of Christmases long, long ago It's the most wonderful time of the year There'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing When loved ones are near It's the most wonderful time of the yearExcerpt from "It's the Most Wonderful time of the year" composed in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle. Recorded by Johnny Mathis on his 1986 released album "Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis"
On Saturday, December 13, 2014 while desperately trying to find a pair of winter boots in a Toronto mall I heard Johnny Mathis singing the popular song "It's the Most Wonderful time of the year." I immediately lost that tense, desperate feeling that I was never going to find a pair of winter boots that I liked, that would last the entire winter and that I could afford. It is truly amazing how a song can affect your mood especially a song associated with beautiful memories. Although the Johnny Mathis version of the song "Most Wonderful time of the year" is not the song I remember from my youth it is the one I prefer. At this time of the year many of the songs that are played on the radio, in advertisements and in the malls remind us that Christmas is near. Christmas was indeed one of the most wonderful times of the year when I was a child. We listened to songs with catchy melodies and lyrics that made no sense because we had never seen many of the things mentioned in popular Christmas songs. We had never seen snow or "a winter wonderland," we had never seen reindeer or "a one horse open sleigh."It was not the words of the songs that made Christmas in Guyana magical and "the most wonderful time of the year," the music was a backdrop to the Christmas experience. And a Guyanese Christmas is an "experience" that everyone must have at least once in their life. Ask any Guyanese living outside of Guyana about their Christmases "long, long ago" and you might have to buy them a box of Kleenex especially if they have not been "home" in years to celebrate Christmas.
Even though it was recognized that Christmas was about the celebration of the birth of "baby Jesus" and several churches would have a crèche (nativity scene) displayed to remind the faithful of the reason for the celebration there were Guyanese of other religions who celebrated Christmas. Guyanese of various religious beliefs celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday because there were mandated holidays on December 25 and 26 and January 1. All government offices and private sector businesses (except rum shops and cake shops) closed on those 3 days while all schools closed for 3 weeks during the Christmas holidays.In the Guyana of my childhood Christmas Day preparations began in one form or another several months before December. Christmas Day celebrations in any Guyanese household would be incomplete without “black cake.” Various dried fruits (raisins, currants, prunes etc.,) would be ground, mixed and then stored in a container of rum for weeks (sometimes months) to “cure” the fruits. This method of “setting” the fruits preferably in a covered glass container varies from family to family. The excitement increased as December approached with adults preparing for and children anticipating the great day.
A few days before Christmas Day the house would be unrecognizable with most of the wooden furniture stripped of their year old varnish. The furniture would be sanded and polished mostly by the men of the family with the reluctant help of the children. At this time of the year many young adults were hired to help sand and polish floors and furniture. New coverings for chair cushions together with sheets and pillow cases were bought or sewn.A flurry of activity in the kitchen would herald preparations for making “black cake” with children commandeered to “cream” butter and sugar (mix until all the sugar melted into the butter) which I always tried to avoid! The more adults in the house (hired help or relatives on holiday) the better chance children had of escaping the tasks of helping to sand furniture or “cream” butter and sugar! The hustle and bustle in the kitchen increased the night before Christmas when the black cakes were already baked and left to “cool off” and the feast was being prepared. The ham had to be prepared (I admit I ate ham then) the chickens and ducks had to be prepared. All that work was accomplished overnight. On Christmas Eve night we all went to bed in new night gowns or pyjamas. The beds with new mattresses (or new covers on the mattresses) were covered with new sheets, pillows and pillow cases. The adults worked through the night and on Christmas morning the children awoke to an entirely new house! The walls looked different with new paint and decorations. The “new” furniture in their gleaming wooden glory was unveiled and the gifts under the tree tempted us to open them. The rule was breakfast first then presents could be opened.
The smell of “pepperpot” drew us to the table on Christmas morning. There is no Guyanese Christmas morning without “pepperpot” and homemade bread. Whatever else is on the table takes second place to “pepperpot” and plait bread. The main ingredients in Guyanese pepperpot are cassareep (made from boiled cassava juice) and meat. Various spices are added to the thick brown liquid cassareep (an Amerindian creation) which preserves the meat for days. After breakfast and exclamations over how different everything looked on Christmas morning (including the artificial snow on the artificial Christmas tree) it was time to open the gifts. We were excited to see our presents that “Father Christmas” had brought for us while we were sleeping. Santa Claus was non-existent in the Guyana of my childhood. There would be books and new clothes for everyone, cap guns and holsters were a staple, dolls, beautifully decorated doll size teapots, teacups and saucers, water guns, whistles, jacks sets and dolls’ clothes. There were cricket sets, child size sewing machines and ovens but the toys that were most used on Christmas Day by everyone were the cap guns and water guns. We were all “cowboys” male and female, for some reason we never thought about playing “cowgirls.”The smell of Christmas Day in Guyana cannot be replicated anywhere else. The smell of polished furniture and floor, together with new linoleum strategically placed to protect the polished floor, smell of new fabric from curtains billowing at the windows and of course the food!! The table groaned on Christmas Day with the black cakes, baked ham, roasted and curried chicken and duck, chow mein, patties, pine tarts, cheese rolls, pickled onions, dahl puri, roti, various kinds of rice, salads and casseroles. The drinks were on a separate table because women and children did not drink the liquor and there was much liquor for the men. Rum, highwine, brandy and various other “hard stuff” were the drinks of choice for the men of the family and male guests. Most women and the children drank mauby, cider, ginger beer, sorrel, Cidrax and Peardrax. On Christmas Day the food was shared with relatives, friends, neighbours and strangers who visited. Everyone was welcome and invited to eat, drink and take food home when they visited on Christmas Day and the drinks flowed freely.
All this Christmas Day feasting and excitement took place to a backdrop of music, including calypsos, carols and other Christmas songs. The traditional Masquerade bands were an integral part of Christmas Day with “Mother Sally” and the “Mad Cow.” Well I always thought the cow was mad because it charged at everyone watching the masqueraders dance! It was not a real cow but a man in a cow costume who accompanied “Mother Sally” (a man on stilts dressed as a woman.) The masqueraders would move energetically to the music of fife and drums. When money was thrown in their path the masqueraders would “flounce” as they danced low to the ground to retrieve the money. As a child I was very afraid of “Mother Sally” and the “Mad Cow” so although the music was lovely I much preferred to listen to Christmas records played on the “radiogram.” On Saturday December 13 I did not get the winter boots I wanted but I left the mall with the sound of Johnny Mathis reminding me that this is “The most wonderful time of the year” and I remembered “the glories of Christmases long, long ago” when I was a child in Guyana!!