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The scents of Christmas

Friday, December 20, 2013

For many people nationwide Christmas is the best time of the year. Originally intended to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, the occasion has become one of much commercialism, losing the essence of what it was meant to be. It is noteworthy that Bunji Garlin’s first attempt at parang soca defines the true essence of the season, that is “remember the Saviour.”


As a child, Christmas had its own unique scent, probably caused by fresh paint, varnish and floor polish, the preparation of the seasonal cuisine, and that special chilly wind that seemed to blow at that time of year. The scent of new curtains and linoleum also heralded Christmas. 


Preparations for Christmas began as early as a month before Christmas day with Mom going into the city to purchase material to sew new curtains. Because our home had wooden floors, sand-papering the floors and furniture were an annual ritual in the preparations. This was an arduous task.


Sand-papered floors stripped of the previous year’s polish, painstakingly we not just polished the floors but, using rags and old socks turned into gloves, we shined the newly-polished surface until you could practically see your face in it.


As I recall now and have myself a chuckle, once the polishing was completed, none of the children were allowed to venture unto that flooring until guests visited on Christmas and Boxing days. If there was one room in the house that was strictly off limits to children for that period it was the living room.


Then, there was the going to market for produce and subsequent shelling of what seemed then to be millions of pounds of fresh pigeon peas, and peeling of sorrel and ginger. While the children did these mundane chores Dad would be helping mom make his widely spoken-off ponche de creme, the recipe of which only he seemed to know. 


He would sit for hours and hours while whisking that ponche de creme mix, until it was smooth like butter. He also assisted mom in preparing the ingredients for the fruit cake and sweet bread, ensuring copious amounts of liquor, as well as cherry brandy, were added to the batter. Once our parents backs were turned, we children sneaked the hustled gulp of cherry brandy.


As the Christmas Day neared, the scents of the season would become more intense, especially in the kitchen. The scent of ham boiling permeated the air; ham back in the day, wrapped in tar which had to be meticulously removed before boiling. 


The actual ham didn’t come in contact with the tar as it was insulated, separated by some king of fabric. Most people boiled their ham, outdoors in a biscuit tin, sometimes on a “three-stone” fire. There are tales in the country of ham being stolen from the boiling water and replaced with a big stone. My mother never subscribed to the ham in tar option.


In the kitchen, my siblings and I would take turns helping our parents mix the cake batter, with the ultimate reward being getting the bowl afterwards to consume the remnants of the mix. 


We were also the official tasters of the ham, turkey, pork and any meat mom baked, and the stuffing that went into the turkey. We children also assisted with the sticking of clove into the ham surface after it was baked.


Dad, being the tallest in the household, was the official “putting upper” of curtains. This was meticulously done after curtain rods were cut each year to room specifications.


My parents were never into Christmas trees so there was never one in my home.


My home assumed the appearance of a community centre on Christmas Eve night as most of the children in the community converged there to sample my mother’s cooking. 


Having always lived in houses with big yards, we children ran wild well up to midnight, lighting star lights (sparklers) and enjoying the atmosphere.


As a young child it was near impossible to fall asleep on Christmas Eve night, the anticipation of gifts being too great. Gift-giving came after breakfast, the largest breakfast of the year. Now an adult, I still miss awaking and eating my mother’s fresh salt and sweet breads with ham and pastelles, and chow chow. Breakfast also included souse and other delecacies.


I recall many a time when sleep in the wee hours of Christmas morning of my household being rudely awakened by loud singing by a group of men, many of whom sounded either inebriated or tone deaf, or totally incapable of singing in the right key.


Post-breakfast activity including the opening of gifts and reciprocal visits to what could have been every neighbour’s house, to not just eat even more, but to play with toys and games, especially board games like Ludo and Snakes & Ladders.


Christmas Day seemed consumed in a haze of play and eating with lunch that day being a ritual of gastronomic proportions. The luncheon fare included every imaginable meat, rice, macaroni pie, potato salad (with diced beetroot), fresh pigeon peas, and green salad. 


For dessert, my mother’s fruit and sponge cakes, were the popular choice, followed by nuts (my father loved hazel and walnuts), dates, apples and grapes. All of this was washed down with mom’s sorrel, dad’s ponche de creme; a glass of port or sherry as we grew older.


After lunch, there was just one thing to do, sleep or watch the movie on TTT, usually Cinderella.


The season of Christmas also included visits to external family and visits to our home, and going to church.


Today too many of us have forgotten the reason for the Christmas season. It is not about the Christmas tree, decorations, gifts and unnecessary spending. To the global Christian community it is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, and a reaffirmation to the principles and guidelines he lived and died for, primarily loving each other, respecting each other and having each other’s backs, especially in adversity.



I saw another side of the police this Christmas when I was a special guest at the Christmas dinner and awards ceremony, hosted by the St Clair police station, at Aria on Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook. 


The event, organised by acting Inspector Earl Elie and PC Emerson Francis, was graced by the presence of assistant CoP Stephen Ramsubag, as well as by a number of the police heirarchy.


Instead of an opening prayer a song, O Holy Night, was sung acappella style, by guests, led by WPC Donna Marshall-John. I was made to feel right at home by WPC Venoria Lara, Ramsubag, Elie, Francis, Cpl Ramesh Dhandir, and Cherryann Tudor.


The evening was perfect with a sumptuous traditional Christmas meal, dessert, live entertainment by officer Dexter Theophile. Before guests took to the dance floor, about 50 officers from the station were presented with gifts by their seniors.


It was refreshing to see police officers, dressed in trendy civilian attire, letting their hair down, and dancing until 2 am.


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