Trini Christmas is the best


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 23 Dec 99

Friends from Northern climes look horrified when I tell them to visit at Christmas. They give me talk: the Caribbean is great, we love the sun, but Christmas is not Christmas without snow, and roasting marshmallows on a real fire; and scorching your mouth on hot chestnuts on a bitingly cold day; and mistletoe decorated with berries under which you kiss your sweetheart, and the piquancy of real pine trees, and holly, and crimson capes.


Christmas is not Christmas without a cozy room where logs crackle and spit; without the rattling of the windows, the frantic rustle of trees outside. Not Christmas without fog, and mist, and the sounds of ice being scraped from the windshield and shoveled off the driveway. Not Christmas without the moon lighting up icicles on bare trees like gigantic diamonds, creating a natural magical set for a ballet of The Ice Queen.


They were ringing in my ears like a stuck sleigh bell. Sit down around me in the scanty shade of this coconut tree here, (mind one doesn’t fall on you) and I’ll tell you why “Trini Christmas” is, as the song suggests, “de bes”.


Long time ago, when we were still the colonies (and forced to be mimic men and women) the English, French and Spanish planters - like you, now perspiring under this lemony glare, also didn’t believe Christmas was Christmas without snow. Their wives sweating profusely under their corsets and multi-layered petticoats, pining for a white Christmas at home, grumbled to their husbands about being stuck out here in the sticks. To appease them, the settlers took the easiest cotton pickin’ way out. They used cotton instead to decorate their trees and windows. They began importing apples, grapes, and pears so they could savour their cold climes in their mouths. In time, their descendants, the freed slaves and indentured labourers also began to associate Christmas with crated, shipped overripe apples and grapes which tasted like prunes.


Because our language - and along with it much of our memory - was wiped out, the rest of us followed suit with imitation Christmases. There were no Christmas trees to be bought. People went to the forest and cut a big branch with lots of limbs. They painted it white, and stuck it in big, sand-filled tin. They put a circle of cotton wool around the tin to show snow had fallen. Or they made a Christmas tree using a broomstick, dyed it green, and stuck on branches made with strands of dyed green rope wound with wire. At the end of each branch, red cellophane (that glowed like holly in foreign Christmas cards) was stuck on to hide the bristles. These trees were wide at the base, and narrow on top. Imitation holly, berries, strawberries, bells and baubles were hung on the homemade trees. A star was made out of shiny paper. It looked good.


Those were the days before malls and turkeys, and most folks were poor. But Christmas was still for children. A single apple would be slivered into 13 pieces for every mouth in the family. The wheel of a bicycle, or a homemade go-cart, would provide Christmas fun. Children whipped themselves into a frenzy as adults put up their curtains one minute before midnight to surprise neighbours. Mothers got ready for lunch and church, washed and dried their best crockery and put it back under the bed for visitors who never qualified as “best”.


Not everyone had access to real carols, but we being a musical people sang parang at Christmas as naturally as we do calypso at Carnival. Women wearing frilly skirts and flowers in their hair, and men playing the banjo and chac chacs went from house to house singing Spanish.


They were treated to black cake so potent it went to your head (what do you expect if its fruit was soaked for a year in alcohol and the cake saturated with cherry brandy?), ginger beer, sorrel, punch de creme and the Christmas ham. Even though in East Indian homes many prayer jhandis were evident in the yard, and Muslims fasted, and curry was the Christmas fare, there was a tree inside and lights outside, and just as much joyous anticipation as everywhere else.


For the all-too-brief days of plenty, we began importing real pine trees.  Its perfume would waft through our rooms for weeks, until their branches turned dark and dropped off. When that was stopped, we tried local pine trees but baubles slipped off them, so imitation trees replaced the real thing. We, like the rest of the world, have succumbed to the consumerism that only America is rich enough to afford. That brand of cultural penetration brings with it more dissatisfaction than goodwill at this time of year. But if the age of Nikes and Levis was strong enough to bring down the Berlin wall, who is we?


Without realising it, with traditions like gathering stones and pitch oil tin to boil the salty ham, the Christmas curry, our blushing poinsettia,  parang in the breezy Paramin hills, Soca Santa, pungent sorrel flowers, we re-created ourselves in our own mould, did the impossible by jogging an almost-erased memory in order to reclaim ourselves.


With our humble tools of paint and tinsel, song, varnish and linoleum, we breathed sharing, resilience, tolerance, exuberance, love, and faith into the cottonwool snow that skirted our trees.


Hush. This lady here, selling shark and bake, is singing one of the many Christmas ballads created locally by Kelvin Hutchin. Her voice starts off shaky, then takes off with the potency of mulled wine. Listen. Church bells are ringing, the world is in love.... hearts filled with gladness, there’s joy up with laughter and you in my arms, with midnight a moment away....just hold me tight, while the clock strikes midnight.... kiss me for Christmas, and then....kiss me for Christmas again! Couples huddle closer. The sun melts snowy hearts just as well as log fires. Merry Christmas, dear lady, and to you all good cheer. Mind that coconut.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur