In Guyana, formerly British Guiana and a tropical country, the main thrust of the celebration of Christmas is to have the best home ready for the Christ Child. This home has two dimensions. It is external as well as internal.
First, the external home is the physical home. From mid-November, new curtains and chair coverings are made or, at the least, the old ones are washed and ironed. The same is true for bed sheets and pillow cases. The furniture is also stripped of varnish and polish from the previous year, sandpapered and refinished.
No celebration is complete without food and drink. Usually, two types of cakes are made, one with the red cherries and raisins and the other, known as “black cake” because of its color, is made with minced prunes and raisins which are soaked in rum since the beginning of the year. Local drinks are made separately from ginger, sun-dried sorrel, and the mauby bark, and wine from the jamoon fruit.
Ham is imported and, as such, is purchased especially only at Christmas. If the ham is smoked for shipping, it is boiled for several hours in a huge pot or tin can. If it is pre-cooked, it is baked in the oven. In both cases, after the ham is cooked, it is decorated with cloves which add a pleasant flavor and scent. On Christmas morning, the first meal is eaten with freshly baked bread which is served with ham and Worcestershire Sauce and/or mustard. Also served with bread are pepperpot and garlic pork. Pepperpot is made primarily of beef and pork which are cooked with casareep, an extract from the cassava root. This dish is indigenous to the Amerindians who are native Indians in Guyana. Garlic pork, I am told, comes from the Madeirans who came to some of the British colonies in the West Indies, including Guyana, mainly in the 1840’s. Garlic pork is made by marinating pork in garlic and other spices mixed with vinegar, then fried.
It is said that on Christmas Day in Queens, New York where there are communities of Guyanese-Americans, even with the windows and doors tightly shut because of the winter’s cold, that you can still tell from the street which house a Guyanese lives in from the smell of the highly spiced pepperpot and garlic pork.
Starting early in the afternoon of Christmas Day, in many villages of Guyana, there are the traditional masquerade bands and steel bands which provide entertainment along a four or five mile stretch of road. The masquerade bands consist of people, dressed in colorful costumes, who dance to the beat of drums. Some of these costumes include “Mother Sally,” who is someone in a long dress with straw hat and dances on tall wooden stilts; and “the Cow,” worn over the shoulders of someone, who dances as well as charges at children jumping out of the way for the fun of it. Later on, the steel band with people playing the steel drums come and are followed by a crowd of people from the villages as they dance in the street.
Occasionally, members of the masquerade and steel bands would stop in front of the home of someone they know well to get some rest. They usually go into the home to have a schnapp of rum and a “cutter” which could be a piece of ham or cheese or something with a little bit of salt. Then off they would go again.
So far, we have considered the external home. But there is the internal home too. The Collect for the fourth Sunday of Advent states: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself…” While this prayer pertains to the Second Coming of Christ, for Guyanese, Christmas is an opportunity to practice for that Coming at the end of time. Preparation of the inner home for the Christ Child at Christmas is central to the spirituality of the season. Wherever there are Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services, every effort is made by Guyanese Christians to attend at least one of the worship services. The ham, pepperpot and garlic pork can wait until after worship.
To Guyanese, Christmas is symbolic of new birth within one’s soul as well as the remembrance of the birth of the baby, Jesus. Consequently, there are resolutions that are made to live a more Christ-centered life. Now, how long these resolutions remain in effect is another thing. Maybe, that is why we also make New Year’s resolutions.
I have given a synopsis of the meaning, preparation and celebration of Christmas in Guyana, a former British colony. However, some of these elements could possibly be found in other former British colonies in the West Indies and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the pepperpot still remains unique to Guyana.
Diplomate of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy
President Jimmy Carter Professor Emeritus of Mediation and Pastoral Care
Dr. Henry Chan was born in Guyana , South America, and migrated to the U.S.A. as a young man in 1967. He worked in information processing in the areas of programming, systems design, systems analysis and long-range planning. Since his ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1983, he served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Long Island until his retirement in 2008.