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Christmas – Chapter Seven


Tue, Oct 9, 2012

by Oswald Ferreira

Christmas in the village was a time for celebration. It was a busy time and we prepared for weeks. As a child, there were many signs that Christmas was approaching. There would be carols and Christmas songs on the radio, starting some time in November. The season would be cooler and people would be talking about Christmas breeze blowing. The hillsides would be covered in yellow flowers — I never knew what that wild plant was called, but everyone referred to them as “Christmas Blossom”, and the village yards would be coloured red with poinsettia and ripening sorrel.{{more}}

At school, we would be preparing for exams, as the school year ended in December and in January we would be moving up to the next class. It was a fun time at school because we were given extra time to learn the carols and perhaps prepare a play for the Christmas concert to end the school year. We also had some sort of a year-end celebration where we pooled money and bought treats at the shops, perhaps corned beef to make sandwiches, and Ju-c, that way we could celebrate with our peers. On the last day of school we had our results read out class by class in public assembly and those who failed knew that they would be repeating the school year — in a way it was a bit humiliating and it dampened the Christmas spirit for those who had failed.

When school closed we were ready for Nine Mornings. Nine Mornings then was not as it is today. It was merely a time to walk with friends down to the beach. If we were lucky, the village steel band would accompany us for one or two mornings. For many of us Nine Mornings was merely a walk to the mountain lands to milk the cow and bring home the milk for breakfast.

By now the carollers were “serenading” or “singing out”. We would be awakened late at night or in the wee hours of the morning by the sound of carols on the doorstep. After a carol or two the lead person would give a speech. As I recall it could have gone something like this: “Good evening to the master and mistress of this house. We are the Singing Minstrels from Diamonds Village coming to celebrate with you the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on December 25th, day to day but twelve days away. We have not come to annoy you, or deceive you, but to bring you the good news of Christmas. So when you hear our charming music at your door, let not your heart be troubled or your ears be deafened but celebrate with us. So while the Heavenly Host Archangels sing, I now turn to my noble banner and say, choir, choir, celebrate me again.” They started singing and that was their cue for us to open the door and present them with some money.

At home, the preparations were now in full swing. Those who had an arrowroot crop had either harvested it or were busy preparing to harvest it, so that the family could have money for the holidays and the school year ahead. Later, when banana was our main crop, there was steady cash flow, so Christmas preparations could start even earlier. The workers in the arrowroot fields and the mill had an income now and they had stocked away some bobas yams and madungo.

There was a big emphasis on beautifying the home and yard for Christmas. We were busy weeding the yards and flower beds. Every Saturday, the buses into Kingstown were full, as people went shopping for all that was needed for Christmas — perhaps a new bed mattress, a few chairs, curtains for the windows, sheets for the beds and linoleum for the floors. Bear in mind that these were the days when we had to make everything. The sewing machines were busy as curtains were sewed and bed sheets were made and pillow cases and tea towels were hand-embroidered on bleached flour bags. The bed mattresses, pillows and cushions were emptied and washed and when dried, refilled perhaps with fresh barfleau.

The week before Christmas was hectic. We had to scrub the floors, and I mean SCRUB. Before we had running water in the homes, that meant several trips to the village stand pipe or the river to bring several buckets of water and scouring the village for limes, lemons, or Seville “Sibble Sweet” oranges to rub the floor boards so that they shone — and after all that hard work the floor was covered with the new roll of linoleum – at least it was pretty! This was the week for touch up painting, perhaps the windows, the front porch or the living room – all to give the home a Christmas facelift.

Christmas Eve meant rising early to be at the village butcher by 4 a.m. so that we could ensure a good cut of beef. Someone would be going to the lands to secure, feed and water the animals and bring home whatever was available – fresh yam, tannia dasheen or oranges. The ginger we had dried earlier was ground in the mortar and “set up” for ginger beer, and sorrel that we had dried earlier was boiled. Later in the day the ginger and sorrel “beer’ was sugared and bottled with a few pieces of clove inserted and left to be enjoyed on Christmas Day. Someone would be busy picking pigeon peas in the garden and shelling it in readiness for the Christmas meal. The ham was also being boiled.

By now some of the household would have gone to a relative or friend where we would be baking all day. Baking back then was a labour of love. We had to wash the butter, and I mean WASH. We had to constantly churn the margarine in a bucket of water for hours on end to get out any trace of salt and to soften it. This meant several changes of the water. We children did the washing until and adult decided the butter was ready. We then had to mix the washed butter and sugar again for hours until all the sugar was melted and completely mixed in. While this was in progress someone had to beat the eggs. This was again a time consuming process, but the eggs had to “rise” and almost fill the bucket. With the beaten eggs and washed butter mixed with sugar and other ingredients, we were now ready to put the cake together and stick them in the oven – and start all over again on the next batch. We, the children, loved when the cake pans were filled because we had the treat of eating any cake batter that was left in the bucket, or we would scrape it into a small tin and have it baked as our treat. Elsewhere on the premises someone was in charge of bread making. The flour was kneaded and left to rise several times before the loaves were prepared for the oven. The smell of baking bread and cakes was everywhere. By late evening we each had our wooden tray of cakes and bread packed and we toted it home on our heads, perched on a “catta”.

After supper on Christmas Eve the final preparations were in full swing. The new linoleum was laid on the floor. New or washed cushions were sewed shut (no zippers back then), and the new curtains were hung. The new sheets and pillow cases were ironed if necessary and left to deck out the beds as we awoke on Christmas morning.

The kids hoped that Father Christmas would bring them something. We did not get many toys and whatever we got were not extravagant – no laptops or i-pods or smart phones. The girls usually got a small doll, perhaps one whose eyes would close and open, a “sleep-and-wake” doll as we called them. The boys would get a small car or a top. My favourites were a bird on a stick which I waved around and pretended that it flew, the small rooster whistle which we blew and pretended that it was the cock crowing, and the little tin cricket which made a clicking noise when we pressed the little attachment on the back.

On Christmas Day we went to church in the morning and after eating the Christmas lunch we went walking with our friends visiting grandparents and other relatives and were back by dusk. Sometimes we just stayed at home and listened to carols, the Queen’s Christmas Message, or Christmas services. The day seemed to go by so fast and so had most of the food as it was handed out to anyone who passed by or to those who came by serenading. Sometimes it was a bit disappointing, because we had worked so hard and prepared so much and by Boxing Day life was back to normal only to have to do it all again year after year.

We had our toys but soon the dolls had their eyes pushed in and the hair torn off; the cars were dismantled, the bird on a stick died and the rooster ceased to crow – but I always saved my cricket to take to school so that I could have a few weeks of fun for the new school year.