Celebrating Christmas in Guyana During Banned Goods period; consuming flour roti was a crime
The celebration of Christmas in Guyana during banned goods is etched in the minds of Guyanese at home and in the diaspora. Growing up in Guyana, regardless of religious background (I being a Hindu) the season was one of expectancy. During the 1960s (probably even before that) thru 1990s, there was so little to share but there was so much contentment and so much caring and compassion for others (the poor in particular). Food were banned but we made do with the little available; banned foods were smuggled into the country and cost prohibitive for most people.
Before foods were banned in Guyana, and yes roti made from wheat flour was also banned, during white colonial rule, people were not rich. Homes were festooned with simple decorations except for White managers’ houses on sugar estates. Electric lights were a luxury for the poor. In fact, most people didn’t have electricity. There were no street lights except in Georgetown and urban areas that supported the PNC dictatorship. In the rural areas, outside trees and neighborhoods were hardly decorated although yards and exteriors of homes were prim and proper, neatly and immaculately kept. Because money was tight, very few people exchanged cards. But families received lots of Christmas cards from North America and UK from loved ones. Monetary and material gifts also came from abroad to fund simple celebrations. Foods were not banned during White man rule and money circulated. People could afford to buy goods and stay afloat even during the first few years after independence in 1966.
The 1970s and 1980s were difficult years for Guyanese as virtually all imports were banned – including all items associated with the season. The list included flour to make cake and delicious pastries and bread, walnut, raisins, prunes, cherries, citrons, currants, apples, grapes, cajoor or dates, peardrax, cydrax, sweet wine, and items to make special dishes like split peas (for dhal puri, kitchree, bara, phulourie, sahena, kachourie, pakora, etc.), potatoes (for alou pie and alou paratha) canned milk (to prepare burfi, gulab jamun, kheer and other items), cheese (for cheese roll) channa, codfish (salt fish cakes), garlic, onion, spices, corned mutton, sardines, etc. The list of banned goods, was endless. Possession of banned goods carried hefty penalties – confiscation, jail, fine, and bribes. And for females, sexual violence was prevalent in the lock up or sex tradeoff to evade arrest when caught with banned goods. Also, a lot of bribes was passed to prevent arrests and confiscation of banned goods that came from neighboring Suriname and Venezuela. Toilet paper was almost unavailable with people using newsprint that was also scarce. State owned Guyana Chronicle was very valuable in those days. It was the only newspaper. People bought it not for news or the propaganda in the paper but for the toilet. Running water was not available at most homes. Pipes were dried, no water. Toys were very scarce for kids. Also, most houses didn’t have electric lights. And even if one had electrical lamps or electronic decoration, there was daily, almost permanent blackout. During the 1970s and 1980s, most Guyanese returned to the bygone hand lamp and gas lamp era to lit up the nights. And even when one did not have current, one still had to pay electricity bill. Owners of private home use electric plants were prohibited from selling to communities.
In spite of unavailability or shortage of basic goods related to Christmas season, we were satisfied with the little we had. There was team effort to prepare for the season. Adults and children shared in the chores from cleaning up to baking the cake to procuring the meat for the special meals. We were glad to assist with mixing the cake because got an opportunity to lick the spoon and basin or ‘katchey’ the enamel bucket. And we get an extra piece of cake for our labor.
Christmas offered the opportunity for renewal within the home. Old curtains were replaced with seasonal curtains. The pickets, house walls and tree trunks would be washed or painted or white washed (with a special lime). Some acquired new furniture. Some people polished and varnished old furniture and the floor are done. New cushions would be in place along with new spreads on the beds and new pillows to welcome the new season.
There were no name brand sneakers and clothing. In fact, most of us didn’t have footwear. We had cheap US$2 wrist watches, no fancy jeans, caps. Aerated drinks were not affordable for the masses. It was a treat to get a glass of aerated drinks. Pepsi and coke were available for a period of time but then suddenly became scarce with banned goods; foreign exchange was scarce for coke and pepsi. I-Cee and Red Spot were popular backed by lemonade. Most families served kool aid, pine drink (made from the skin of pineapples), mauby, and ginger beer to go with local cake baked over a fire side; very few people had stoves. For adult imbibing, there was only banks beer and Russian beer rum, some other local brand rum, Diamond Club whiskey, but no foreign whiskey. Youngster up until the 1970s were absolutely prohibited from consuming alcohol and smoking. I didn’t taste beer until I was sixteen and I found it horrible.
People went out on Christmas eve for snacks and ice cream and purchasing scarce toys for kids. Carols were very popular with choir singing in front of churches Christmas songs were also played on the air and the radio stations during the season. On Christmas Eve, we were told to hang up socks on Christmas Eve and pledged to behave good and take oath never to curse. On Christmas morning, there was a gift in the socks – a cricket ball or money or some other item. As children, there was so much fun and joy as we ran around popping toy guns and playing with balloons or cricket.
Christmas time saw masquerade bands in their glory – beautiful dances and extempo live music at dusk into the night on Christmas Eve. They also performed over the next several days. Onlookers cheered the bands and also donated money. They went from home to home and street to street displaying their special dance and music.
On Christmas morning and Boxing Day, there were special treats, sumptuous cuisine – wafting in the air was the delicious smell of curried mutton, duck, chicken, dhal puri, assorted delicacies, cake and drinks. We had a bellyful at home and by neighbors and relatives. Uninvited visitors also were treated royally. There was a repeat on New Years Day.
Few people had phones in their homes. And phones hardly worked. People relied on radio announcements for messages. People looked forward for radio programs that carried recorded greetings from loved ones in UK and North America aired on Christmas Day or Boxing Day or New Years. Everyone gathered around the radio for these messages to find out if there was a shout out of their names.
What a memorable time we had yesteryear even amidst unavailability of basic goods.
Read More Articles From Dr. Vishnu Bisram
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