Stories about life, in and out of Guyana, from a Guyanese perspective

Stories about life, in and out of Guyana, from a Guyanese perspective

December 28, 2014 | By | Filed Under Countryman, Features / Columnists

Christmas ‘spirit’, pagan gods, and the Guyanese spirit

By Dennis Nichols

masquerade band is far removed from the clichéd ‘reason for the season.’

The masquerade band is far removed from the clichéd ‘reason for the season.’

Some years ago I told a friend of mine I was concerned about some of the pagan elements of popular holidays and observances like Christmas, Easter and Halloween. He laughed away my perturbation and assured me that the tradition and spirit of how we Guyanese celebrate them are more important than why we do, and what their heathen origins are. I responded that it was an arguable point. As Christmas rolls around again I am once more faced with this curious aspect of yuletide festivity.

The ‘spirit and tradition’ my friend alluded to are the joy and peace, the goodwill, jollification and religious rituals associated with Christmas. Add to this the idea that it seems to transcend religious, cultural, and geographical barriers, and it is obvious why so many people are drawn to its lure and lore, despite the notion that December 25 was almost certainly not the birthday of Jesus.

In Guyana, for example, just about everyone celebrates, observes, or acknowledges Christmas. And whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, or ‘other’ it apparently matters little that the fundamental factor of observance is the birth of Jesus Christ, the progenitor of Christianity which embraces several teachings that are dissimilar, and even antagonistic, to those of other major religions.

I think that major contributors to its success are its end-of-year setting, its commercialism, and above all, the need for reconciliation and validation of the human spirit. Yet, I am haunted by its pagan past.

Many of us probably know that the word Christmas originated as ‘Cristes moesse’ (or maesse) meaning just what it suggests, the mass, or festival, of Christ. But for other aspects of this worldwide celebration there are sometimes conflicting explanations. However, researchers have linked the conviviality of the season with the ancient Roman December feast of Saturnalia, in which the citizens engaged in the most licentious and extravagant expressions of human nature, including sexual excess, over-indulgence in food and drink, and sacrifice to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and harvest.

Incidentally, the feast of Saturnalia is closely associated with two words, well-known in the Caribbean for riotous and lusty celebration, bacchanal and carnival, both of which are evidently of pagan origin, and which also feature carnal (from which ‘carnival’ is derived) indulgence, music, dance and revelry. Not surprisingly, these types of commemorative activities resonate vividly with fun-loving, yet religious, West Indians and Latin Americans.

Christmas’s orgiastic Saturnalia connection

Christmas’s orgiastic Saturnalia connection

And what some of the younger generation may not be aware of is that even such ‘cute’ customs like the gift-giving Santa Claus, stocking-stuffing, exchanging Christmas cards, the Christmas tree, and house decorating, all stem from pagan practices which had little or nothing to do with Jesus’s birth. ‘Fairy’ lights, and the masquerade band with ‘mad cow’ in tow are more recent additions to the Guyanese Christmas scene and they also are far removed from the clichéd ‘reason for the season.’

But with a tumultuous year like 2014 fading into history, goodness knows we need a reason to exhale, and to express some of the more redeemable features of our individual and collective humanity. Here in Guyana we had to deal with not only our own setbacks, hiccups and horrors, but also the plethora of disasters and just plain bad news that emanated from the four corners of the earth.

Enough has been written and said about the bad stuff that happened in Guyana in 2014, starting with that callous murder just a few seconds into the new year, and including the Bai Shan Lin blow-up, the feral blast, the Nandlall scandal, the prorogation surprise, and flood woes. Meanwhile, Chikungunya attacked, and Ebola threatened. Homicides and suicides blunted our senses, vehicular mayhem continued to bloody our roads, and domestic violence to scar our households.

Sure there were some positives – the clean-up drive, the laptop distribution, the continuing excellence of our secondary school students at Caribbean examinations, our NACRA Rugby championship, and the continued resilience of thousands of ordinary Guyanese, bent under socio-economic burdens but still able to hold their heads up with more than a modicum of dignity.

Seven days to Christmas, and three ‘little’ things caught my attention. These were the success of Rafieya Husain at the Miss World pageant, the throbbing resonance of African drums on Regent Street, Georgetown, and the refreshingly-caring ambience of the male medical ward at the Georgetown Public Hospital – three sparks near the end of a year of mischief, mistrust and mouthing-off. And reason enough for me to feel a spurt of optimism about my beloved and bedeviled country.

First, Miss Husain performed more than creditably in representing the beauty and potential of Guyana, even though, according to media reports, she fell sick on the night of the contest. I have always asserted that we have some of the most attractive women in the world, and even though I am not a beauty contest enthusiast, I appreciate the homespun allure of our beauty queen girls, from Shakira to Rafieya.

Then two Mondays ago, my attention was caught and held by the compelling percussion of the Congo-Nya drummers on Regent Street. Even amidst the babble and confusion of the downtown shopping blitz, the small group held its own. In a strange, almost arcane way, I was reminded in an instant of my connection to things African, and the power of African drums to transcend cultural barriers and energize something so seemingly incongruous to its origins as the mainly European Christmas customs we inherited.

Finally, I had cause to visit the Georgetown hospital several times over the past few weeks after a cousin of mine was taken there in a scarily unresponsive state. He was subsequently transferred from Accident and Emergency (A&E) to the Male Medical Ward (MMW) where he is being carefully and caringly nursed back to health after being diagnosed with severe anemia, dehydration, and a brain malfunction.

Hearing so many frightful tales of inhumane treatment and preventable death at the medical facility, I am surprised, humbled, and grateful for the attention and diligence I observed being given to my cousin and other patients of the ward.

I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to speak with the ward sister of that section, but I wish to convey to the nurses, doctors and ancillary staff of both the A&E and the MMW, my compliments on the remarkable job they are doing under conditions that aren’t always conducive to great nurse-patient relations. Spare a thought and a prayer for our beleaguered health-caregivers.

At Christmas time, different kinds of spirits are evoked by different people and different notions of commemorating Jesus’s nativity. There are the spirits of pagan gods, there’s the spirit of revelry, the spirit of goodwill, the spirit of human reaffirmation, and the spirits bottled for human consumption. However, the spirit that should prevail, the one that seeks to embed in our hearts the love of God made manifest through His incarnation on Earth, is the one that seems most often overlooked. Ironic!

Nevertheless, let’s enjoy the season the best and most spirit-filled way we know. Let us sing our carols and attend our church service, clean up and decorate our homes, shop and exchange gifts, ingest, imbibe and party with temperance, reconcile differences and reaffirm faith in each other. And let’s take all of it into 2015, and stick with it. Happy Christmas countrymen and women!

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