Welcome to a very special Festive Feature on my blog, where every day up until Christmas some of my favourite authors will be sharing what they love most about the festive season, including their favourite films, food, music, presents, memories, books…Plus much more!
I’m delighted to be joined by the wonderful Sharon Maas…
Sleighbells under the Sun
By Sharon Maas
My sweetest childhood memories are of Christmas in Guyana. That tingling sense of anticipation! The magic! The sounds, the aroma, the lights, the taste of Christmas! Christmas trees and Christmas cake and lights and Santa in his sleigh and…
Wait a minute… Santa in his sleigh? Why would he need a sleigh in the tropics? In Guyana, 6° north of the Equator? Where was the snow on the rooftops, and the chimneys for him to climb down, and wouldn’t he be sweltering in that thick red suit?
We Guyanese children never asked those difficult questions. It was Christmas, and it was magical, and everything was possible. We tingled with excitement, and laughter was in the air, and goodwill. Small Days we called them, and they were so very sweet. There were few restrictions, in those days.
Back then, in the fifties, Guyana was still a colony, British Guiana; we accepted these anomalies much as we accepted everything British, and some things American to boot. We children sang Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and adults dreamt of a White Christmas, and carol-singers walked the streets and sang not only of the birth of Jesus but implied he was born in the bleak mid-winter where snow had fallen, snow on snow. Most of us had never seen snow; the only cold we knew came from the tinkling ice in our drinking-glasses, and our evergreens were mango trees and coconut palms. The Christmas story was make-believe, and all the more enchanting; for Christmas, we knew, took place in the heart.
I particularly remember my primary school’s Christmas play one year: a production of Good King Wenceslas, in which Christopher B., the tallest boy in the class, trudged through the imaginary snow warming it for his loyal servant. I played Maid Marion in a long-skirted blue dress; I had to appear, I remember, bearing a figgy pudding. I had no idea what that was; but the story was heart-warming, and that’s what Christmas meant to me. The factual details were irrelevant. It was the feeling that counted, and the outer symbols were there to conjure enchantment.
Christmas in British Guiana was sunny, and special. It was all colour and lights and, of course, food. We decorated our homes with gaudy paper garlands. We placed Christmas trees – artificial ones, of course – in the windows, all lit up with fairy lights, and fathers drove their children around town to count all the radiant trees in all the windows, and mothers took their children window-shopping. Bookers and Fogarty’s, the two main department stores in downtown Georgetown, outdid each other with their magnificent displays, and we kids would point at the toys and games and dolls and make our wishes and long for the big day. Bookers and Fogarty’s each had a Santa, and yes, he sweltered in a red suit and you could sit on his lap and get a little present. My most wonderful Christmas present ever was a red Hercules bicycle. I was about eight when I got it; and I can still remember coming downstairs on Christmas morning and my joy on seeing it, all wrapped up in Christmas paper.
And then there was the food. Months in advance my Aunt Leila, who ran our household, would prepare the traditional Black Cake by soaking the dried fruit – currents, raisins, prunes, citrus peel, dates, cherries – in rum. Come baking-day she would add spices, nuts and molasses. The finished cake would be dense, moist, pungent, black, and so rich and heavy with rum you could get drunk on it, and it would keep forever by simple pouring more rum into it. There was a non-alcoholic version for children, and there was always mauby, the classic Guyanese drink. But as you grew older you got to nibble at Black Cake until, one day – ta-da! – you were all grown up and got your full rum-saturated portion.
Central to the typical Guyanese Christmas feast is pepperpot, and that too is prepared in advance – though in this case it’s done days, not months before the big day. Pepperpot is a traditional Amerindian stew consisting of meat preserved in the black condiment known as casareep, a sauce prepared from the cassava plant. Pepperpot is the quintessential Guyanese breakfast. It is eaten with bread, and the pot is kept simmering on the stove for people to dip into as they will. The casareep preserves it for days.
Garlic pork stands right next to pepperpot as a typical Guyanese Christmas dish, brought to us by the Portuguese. Would you believe — it is made of garlic and – um – pork. Speak to Guyanese in the diaspora of Christmas, and they will wax lyrical on the joys of pepperpot and garlic pork and their mouths will water and they will tell you that of all their memories, it’s the Christmas food that makes them most nostalgic and longing for Home.
I cannot make the same claim, having been vegetarian for over forty years. But one thing I do remember about Christmas food: the most special, mouth-watering, utterly rare and exotic food we indulged in at Christmas happened to be – apples, pears and grapes, imported from Britain and the USA. The height of luxury!
I recently returned to Guyana; it was early December, and the Christmas season was just getting into gear. Like all over the world, the commercialisation of Christmas there is complete: the cash-register is king, the ka-ching! of the deal overshadowing that warmhearted thrill we oldies associate with the season. It’s boozy and brash, a time for partying more than for reflection.
And yet, and yet. Every now and then the sound of one of the old carols would sneak out from a street-corner juke-box (they are all over the place in Georgetown, selling pirated CDs and DVDs) and one of the old goldies would sweep me back into the good old days; and sweet nostalgia would creep through me and I’d be a child again, a child enthralled, enwrapped in the magic and spirit of a true Guyanese Christmas.
*Picture credit: Amanda Richards
A huge thank you to Sharon for this fascinating, insightful post.♥
Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951.
She was educated in Guyana and England. After leaving school she worked as a staff journalist at the Guyana Graphic and the Sunday Chronicla in Georgetown.
Sharon has always had a great sense of adventure and curiosity about the world we live in, and Guyana could not hold her for long. In 1971 she set off on a year-long backpacking trip around South America. Her travel articles were published in the Chronicle.
In 1973 she travelled overland to India through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and spent two years in an Ashram in South India.
Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in India and Guyana and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. Subsequent novels were published in 2001 and 2003.
At present she works as a Social Worker in a hospital in South Germany.