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Dear Moms reflects on Christmas of long ago

Season's Greetings. I would like to take you down memory lane to a time and place, how we the people of long ago celebrated...

The time is 1935, the place is Suckram Village, Sangre Grande. The population was 24 families — approximately two hundred people. Ethnic groups: 50 per cent East Indian 30 per cent Africans, and 20 per cent mixture of Chinese and Amerindians, whom we referred to as 'Cocoa Panyol'.

The East Indians worked on the cocoa estates and as task workers. They maintained the roads and their pastime was planting rice in the swampy areas. The Africans worked as "cutlass carpenters", they built the mud ajoupas which were small dirt houses and made coals for commercial use. Their pastime was planting ground provisions around the house. And then there were the Cocoa Panyols who lived mostly in barracks on the estates where the men were employed as overseers in charge of one gang of workers. Their wives worked as domestics in the estate owner's home.

The Cocoa Panyols were the first real paranderos. A few lived in my community. I remember seeing them as a child trudging the pitch black night, equipped with flambeaus to give light, strumming their old quartos, two shack-shacks accompanied by momentary sips of their kakapool rum. It was a signal to start the season of Advent/Christmas. The language the Panyols sang in was not grammatical Spanish. It was a fusion between broken French and broken Spanish, which was called 'criollo'. They related in their own style the coming and birth of the Messiah and his mission. We, the children did not understand a word, but we derived joy in seeing new faces and hearing the music. They sang songs and drank black coffee laced with bush rum and gave the elite well-to-do people picong in extempo. We revelled in what we imagined as the best ever Christmas, we were content and felt secure.

When the first paranderos moved from house to house, everyone welcomed them with open arms and well-opened doors because in those days we didn't have doors. Cocoa bags were used for doors and windows. We slept on the floor on dried grass, a scene similar to the stables in the Nativity.

Indeed long-time Christmas wasn't like Christmas nowadays. From the beginning of December all forms of employed labour was stopped in anticipation of the Yuletide season. The Africans males who used to catch large amounts of wild meat and fish and smoke their catch using herbs to preserve foods were some of the original chefs for the "ham" we know and enjoy today. The women at home, gathered firewood and large stones for cooking the ham and cleaned the large dirt oven which during the year accommodated hens that laid their eggs inside the oven. It was a season of sharing where neighbours who had tools for Christmas preparation welcomed anyone to the service. My neighbours were the best around Christmas time. The Paltoos had an apparatus that trested the rice from the paddy called 'denkee'. My grandmother had the large dirt oven, while Pa and Ma Mattie had the large mortar and pestle in the neighbourhood.

Everybody baked by Ma Jajla, and pounded the parched cocoa and coffee beans, and the spices by Mam and Pap. The season was not complete without mauby and sorrel, and how can I forget the ginger beer which was made and set in the sun to ferment for a week before Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, from daybreak the chiefs came out to bake the bread, sweet bread, and black cake. The funny thing was none of the stuff ever came out a hundred per cent perfect as none of the women knew anything about following a recipe to make the pastries. As children however we enjoyed licking the bowls and spoons used, and the treats on Christmas day, which consisted of homemade bread, chocolate tea and sliced ham.

The time is now 2012, decades have passed since 1935. Christmas has changed drastically. Santa Claus, lights and other western practices have replaced the traditional T&T Yuletide practices. While new is not bad and old may not have been better, I really hope that as we progress we don't lose the true essence of Christmas — the sharing, the caring, the goodwill and of course the "Christ" in Christmas!

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