GUYANA: Christmas is Christmas Eve – By Cynthia Nelson

STABROEK NEWS -By December 25, 2021

My Christmas Eve Cook-up Rice (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)
My Christmas Eve Cook-up Rice (Photo by Cynthia Nelson

We all know that Christmas is a season and while I acknowledge it as such, for me, Christmas is really the day before Christmas. Christmas Eve. Growing up it was where all the action and excitement was, and today, I still maintain some of the rituals and traditions. What about you? When is Christmas for you and what are the things that signal that it is Christmas?

The hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve is special, its energy and noise are different, and it is particular to each home – the songs being played in the background, the aromas, the busyness of bodies, the mingling of voices, tasks and rituals that mark Christmas. In our home, the buildup was to the climax of the midnight mass and nativity pageant at Sacred Heart Church. Church and theater! And then, the lime at home after midnight mass feasting on Cook-up Rice and Pepperpot; sorrel drink and cake.         

So here’s how Christmas Eve went down. Mommy insisted on new curtains every year, so the new ones were put up in the afternoon, their placeholders, the previous year’s curtains having done their duty for most of December. Vases of fresh flowers and her beloved, too-fussy-for-my-liking-but-attractive pots of Maidenhair ferns adorned the house. The hiss of the pressure cooker softening peas, beef and salt meat for Cook-up Rice added to the soundtracks of Nana Mouskouri and Johnny Mathis crooning Christmas songs. The aroma of Pepperpot hung in the air coupled with the scent of bread baking in the oven. The warmth and sunniness of the day always added to the cheer of Christmas Eve.

Prepping for the next day’s big meal was more interesting to me than actually consuming the food. It was the doing, the action of chopping, slicing, dicing, grating, seasoning that I enjoyed, because it was in the midst of doing these repetitive tasks that memories were shared, created; it was a time of letting down guards, really talking and listening, at times a few tears of recollection especially for those on the other side of the veil. Christmas Eve was a day replete with pockets of meaningful connections with various members of the household – hanging up the curtains, making up the beds with new linens, prepping ingredients, sorting dishes and silverware, packing the cooler with drinks for the lime later etc.

As daylight faded, twinkling multi-coloured lights flickered on, the living-dining room bathed in hues of red, green, gold, blue, purple, orange and yellow; it would be cool outside, but the oven kept the house warm; the aroma of the delectable clove-studded ham mingling with the sweet smell of its pineapple glaze making the tummy rumble.

When night fell, the hustle and bustle subsided, the day taking a breath. Somewhere in the distance Christmas music would be playing. Mom retired to bed to rest before getting ready for midnight mass. My siblings would most likely be hanging out with friends from the neighbourhood and I’d be sitting quietly – looking forward to the mass and pageant and a little sad that my Christmas was almost over, the day (Christmas Eve) would soon end. My reverie would be interrupted by Mommy calling out to tell me to turn off the stove from reheating the Pepperpot, or finishing the cooking of the Cook-up Rice, or that the ham had finished baking.

The pressure cooker full of Cook-up Rice would remain hot until we returned from midnight mass, the other pressure cooker full of Pepperpot keeping it company.

The midnight mass and pageant would deliver all that it promised, joyous praise and worship, stellar singing, and acting to applaud, and at least one altar boy nodding, eyes heavy with sleep.

After a long but exhilarating day, our minds would be the Cook-up Rice awaiting us. A group of friends would accompany us home, there would be much to gyaff about – how the pageant went, what we thought of the Kings’ singing, who wanted to laugh as one of the participants forgot their lines and the nodding altar boy(s) to be mercilessly teased. All of this talk would go down well with food and drinks.

A couple hours later, still early hours of the morning, we’d bid our friends goodbye. Drowsy with sleep and bellies full, we’d drag ourselves off to bed. I’d quickly drift off to sleep thinking, it was a good Christmas.

These days, my bread and ham are baked on Christmas Eve, and I cook Cook-up Rice for the evening meal. Christmas Eve still remains Christmas for me. It is a lot quieter, in many ways… but I have many memories to keep me company.

Continue to enjoy the holidays, everyone and stay safe.

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  • MN  On 01/06/2022 at 9:47 am

    Cynthia Nelson’s story about Christmas Eve made me nostaligic for my Christmas Eves in GT, when we too were listening to Johnny Mathis and Nana Mouskouri (and Sparrow, Nat King Cole and Jose Feliciano) and looking forward to the lime after mass! And yes, always pepperpot, and garlic pork too!

  • Peggy  On 01/06/2022 at 10:35 pm

    The dining table laden with delicious food is usually the one element that brings us together and binds us all. Thank you for a trip down memory lane; so happy for you to have such fond memories to carry you forward.

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