Christmases past 1951-1961 by William Walker
Stabroek News
December 23, 2001

The Christmas of 1951 was quite uneventful in Guyana - or one should say, British Guiana. The headlines in the Daily Chronicle reflected the fact that many readers in this sleepy backwater of a colony were more interested in world events and goings on in Britain ("Reading man suffocates self") rather than what residents of Georgetown were up to.

The Daily Chronicle was at that time a broadsheet with important looking headlines, although it only ran to four pages and cost a mere 8 cents. "Pessimism about Prospects of Truce in Korea" was the lumbering headline on December 24. "Egyptians Blow Gap in Railway Line near Suez." Both stories indicating much more turbulent times ahead, even for little Guiana.

More importantly West Indies needed 233 to win the Third Test in Adelaide. Alf Valentine had recorded 6 for 102 putting the West Indies in a position to win their first match on this tour. Their dismal performance had led someone to pen a poem entitled Shameface:

Paddnas, me prappa feel shame at me Buddy dem in Australia
Dem should sen all ah dem back
Deck passage allah dem is ah falia

Closer to home the MV Zerina owned by Mr Mohammed Hussain, a postal agent of Mahaica River, made a successful first launch.

The crime blotter was disappointingly clear: "The police report up to yesterday afternoon that major offences were not very much and an attempt to enter a spirit shop at Pltn. Diamond was unsuccessful."

Most alarming was the "Non Arrival of UK Mail... airmail dispatch No 171 from London due to reach Guiana on December 10 1951 has not been received. Enquiries are being made."

"Yule Tide party for Babies" recorded that a gay time was spent at the government school Beterverwagting on December 12 when about 127 babies who had grown up under the League were entertained at a Christmas treat."

With little exciting news the advertisements make for fascinating reading. At the cinema the hit show was Crosswinds, playing at the Astor. "Desperate men brave the terrors of the South Seas jungles in search of gold... and the only white woman in a thousand square miles." A "Storm Tossed Love Lashed" Hurricane Island starred the forgettable Jon Hall and Marie Windsor as the Lady Pirate and her Love Captive.

Meanwhile Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were at the New Olympic in Africa Scream: "It's a Howl It's a Roar It's a Scream !!!"

Suggestions for Christmas presents were many - "For Christmas a practical and very useful gift would be a bottle of B.G. Limacol either plain or mentholated." (Try that today.) Ladies could get their hair done with a machine perm at $3.00 per head at Tel O wave Salon, 104 Regent Street.

D'Aguiars Imperial House was offering Prize Medal Rum and Pepsi Cola ingeniously warning that supplies were limited pending the opening of a new $300,000 bottling plant. Murphy, the Rolls Royce of radios, was retailing for the princely sum of $110 - that would not buy a Banks Beer today.

"Did you smile into your mirror today? Were your teeth as white as hers?" asked an ad for Pepsodent, the toothpaste with that oh so magic ingredient Irium."

Bronchial asthma was eased in a flash with Buckleys mixture, and Lydia E Pinkham's vegetable compound was "simply great for relieving 'periodic' female pains and nervous distress several days before." It was "truly the woman's friend."

An article in a Boxing Day edition warned that students going to live in London would have to get by on at least seven pounds sterling a week. Heating from October to March would set you back 30 shillings. And one piece of advice: there was no answer to the customary British greeting, 'How do you do?'

In the classifieds at least one gentleman would be having a blue Christmas. "I hereby want the public to know that I shall not be responsible for any debts contracted by my wife Elaine Garnett. She has left my home and protection since December 3rd." Percy C. Wight was selling 20 JP Santos Shares.

While Christmas Day 1961 was said to be quiet, "with Church Services and Family Gatherings taking top priority," Guyana's political landscape was in turmoil, and not because Jerry Lewis was the Ladies Man - "We've had Romeo as the greatest lover of them all... now see Jerry..."

Cheddi Jagan had been Premier for just over three months. On Christmas Day he and his daughter Nadira were caught on camera leaving the Mariners Club in Kingston after a bathe in the swimming pool. Four hours later his son Joey, excited by what Nadira had told him, also headed across to the pool (making sure to avoid the Gang of Eight). Local news had invaded the front page.

Inside the same Daily Chronicle there was a picture of graffiti in Venezuela protesting the visit there of President John F Kennedy: "Kennedy no Viva Fidel." Colombian terrorists even back then had killed 50 peasants and there were fatal protests in Santo Domingo.

Revolution was all around. Even at Central Bookshop, 91 Smythe Street, hot page-turners were the Hungarian Revolution and Utopia. The advertisements for the movies appealed to populist sentiment. Spartacus "a revolt that shook a civilization, the love that defied a world... It's People, it's Power it's Passions. (Three PPPs!!) Kirk Douglas was "fierce in his dream of freedom as he was gentle in his love" for Jean Simmons, "the woman whose love inspired a rebellion, whose arms were Spartacus' refuge!"

The Chronicle seemed to be fighting communism while trying not to look like colonial sympathizers. Its front page on December 24 had an article where Jagan was said to be peeved at delays in negotiations over independence. But underneath this was a mysterious anonymous letter urging everyone to enjoy the season - "This may be your last free Xmas." It read ominously: "In a meeting at Freedom House a Greater (!) than the Premier informed the big boys of the Party that those who have property must be prepared to surrender all but one." This supposedly led to some of them walking out and the letter concludes: "Over to you now Forbes. Stop baiting the leader of the United Force and be the leader you can be."

The newspaper gave the Christmas Day headline to Governor Ralph Grey whose message repeated a call for unison (not yet Unity) and acknowledged, "that not all tables will be well spread, not all hearts will be gay or minds at rest... Guyana has had its sad divisions. But it is coming to an end with a future before us that can be bright enough if we have the will to make it so."

Jagan with his "eyes on independence in 1963" noted in his address, which in hindsight seems so reckless, "As we celebrate let us all have one thought in mind... a free and unfettered Guiana. Only this way will we be able... to make Guiana a place of equality and plenty for all..." A city man, Arthur Silas, was pictured with an eleven-pound sweet potato he had grown in his backyard.

That equality had some other people very uneasy. A paid advertisement for Peter D'Aguair ended with "Long Live the United Force! Only with you as a leader will our country be freed from the threatened diabolical communism." Cooked legs of ham were selling for $1.20 per lb.

The Chronicle editorials were trying to stay independent. In 'What We Think' the paper wrote, "We needn't be told that the government respects us... for our determination not to wag our tail every time the premier snaps his fingers and whistles." Another editorial criticised the government for putting restrictions on foreign exchange. "By banning the outflow of capitals the government bans the inflow." Another questioned unrealistic state planning.

Bookers was celebrating Christmas with the Common Man. Under a photo of a janitor sweeping a deserted department store the copy read: "The doors have closed on our customers and staff. Soon Anthony Roberts will put away his broom and join his family. Christmas is Here."

It was indeed a kinder, gentler country. The Minister of Home Affairs, Balram Singh Rai wished "all the inmates under my charge best wishes for a happy festive season." They would be served sweetbread and curried mutton, ginger beer and sorrel for Christmas lunch. While prisoners at the Mazaruni Prison would be serenaded by the Salvation Army.

On the Crime Sheet Doreen Crane was arrested for shoplifting at Booker's Universal Stores with toys valued at $11.06 (two cigarettes worth today). Margaret Tulles of 228 Camp Street reported to the police that she was attacked on Church Street and lost a wallet containing $18.50 and some pictures. "Commissioner of Police Ronald Webber advised that when shopping put your purse carefully around. It is safe in your hand." Meanwhile a 28 year old man was beaten up while visiting "one of his friends" on Xmas day when he came across another also paying a visit...

Even with the political turmoil and a "credit squeezed" Christmas some people still had an opportunity to have "a real gone time" at the annual Bishop's High School party. Vivacious Lynette Deanne came of age on December 23. Dressed in a white peau de soie... she stuck the cake with handsome Patrick Kilkelly before dancing to all hours.

The twist was the dance of the moment and the December 26 issue had photos of heavily coiffed girls in still longish dresses, arms akimbo.

Competition for Spartacus came from the blockbuster King of Kings. In a publicity coup the Metropole GM, Peter Ramsammy, was photographed on the phone to a senior official of MGM discussing the installation of the "Deluxe Gaumont Kalee Full Four Track Stereophonic Sound System and Projection Equipment." Meanwhile Elvis was crooning his swim trunks away on some Pacific beach in Blue Hawaii.

On the airwaves Radio Demerara was broadcasting a Sherlock Holmes drama The Man with the Twisted Lip. The Phantom comic strip was still going, and Kerry Drake was kissing a man under a tree while lifting her heel off the ground. But the strips were now dominated by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

The advertisements had also taken on a space-age flavour given the era of space exploration. There was a long article on how storing rocket fuel in space would now be feasible in any manned mission to the moon. Buckleys promised that a single dose would "speed rocket relief to all three cough spots - the nose, throat and chest."

But finally, more down-to-earth matters engaged City Hall which was "in a drive to collect $1m in back taxes." Delinquent amounts averaged $80 $200 from as far back as 1957 9. The short-staffed section of the Deeds Registry has been issuing summations since July."

Apparently some things will never change.

Next week, Christmases 1971-1981. Don't miss Diamonds are Forever and an angry Finance Minister, Desmond Hoyte, tells Maccie Hamid to step outside!

By Christmas of 1971 polyester pants with generous flares were all the rage. One provocative advertisement for that wonder textile, terylene, had a woman looking admiringly up at a man's zipper: "Terylene your kind of hot pant... " read the breathless copy, "the kind that sets you apart as a cool operator! No matter how hot the action Terylene keeps you cool... Wet it and Forget it! Live it up and Rough it up!"

Prime Minister Burnham was firmly in charge of the terylened masses and the country was on the great drive to feed, clothe and house itself by 1976. In his Christmas message Burnham confessed that his favourite song was the Little Boy Santa Forgot. "Let us all co-operate to banish unemployment and remaining inequality by 1976." To this end the government had just proposed a 6 per cent increase in the corporation tax retroactive to January. Meanwhile Finance Minister Desmond Hoyte had more immediate problems to deal with including a 7 per cent devaluation of the Guyana dollar bringing it to the equivalent of 2 to 1 against the US. It is hard to imagine now, how traumatic such a move must have been. The Chamber of Commerce was quoted as predicting the cost of living would rise by 15 per cent, something derided by Hoyte in Parliament who said, "the increase would be minimal if at all." Earlier in the week he had caused a ruckus when he challenged Maccie Hamid of the PPP to a fight. Hamid had supposedly called him a puppet during a speech in the assembly and Hoyte had retorted how he was "stupid and a fool." Hamid replied that the Minister should "wash his mouth out with caustic soda."

"Hoyte leapt from his seat: 'Come outside and say that and let me kick you!' and he stormed out of the Chamber as Mr Hamid angrily replied, 'I am coming' rising from his seat only to be restrained by his colleagues.

"Meanwhile Mr Hoyte was seen outside with a wooden ashtray held upside down in his hand." The Graphic had a field day with the incident highlighting the weapon on its front page, the story written by Rickey Singh.

The Graphic was the opposition paper and as such would only have a few more years to run. It also took on the government over the proposed retroactive 6 per cent increase in the corporation tax, something downplayed in the Chronicle which chose to highlight reductions in personal taxes. The Graphic was outraged:

"What next in the holy name of Guyanese economic development only God knows!"

But the cheerleading Chronicle editorials would fit in nicely even now: "In Guyana today the situation is gradually changing for the better. The long task of healing and organizing a dispirited people is being successfully accomplished." Another on public sector wage increases went: "It is this one sided affair that has propagated the notion that higher wages happen automatically instead of having to be earned by increased productivity and output."

The police were trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of $26,665 intended for farmers and teachers in the Pomeroon which was stolen from a locked safe at the Charity Post Office. A report noted that there were no fragments to show the safe had been broken into and the postmaster had allegedly spent the whole weekend in the Pomeroon river and did not return until Monday.

The Graphic's editorial while supporting the self sufficiency drive was disturbed by the numbers of layoffs including 300 sea defence workers from the British company Balfour. Attorney General S Ramphal disclosed that printing of the Laws of Guyana "is expected to begin shortly and for the first time in history it would be done locally." Enough said.

Apparently even back then journalists were finding flimsy excuses to write about Christmases past. Frederick Watson waxed nostalgic: "When I was a lad I used to get imported grapes, iced apples and many other delicacies. Today our Christmas tables are filled with many of the local substitutes in our quest to preserve our national heritage... Today the focus is on soul dance, groovy they call it, and the ever popular reggae of Jamaica which is but a reflection of the foxtrot and hopwaltz."

Another writer was more interested in defining the emerging species 'Co-operative Guyana Man.' "He loves loans and freeness, borrowing without repayment. He loves big spending, big talk, big cars pomp ceremonial parades, uniforms. He loves speechification, argumentation and litigation."

Further afield Yoko Ono had been unable to see her daughter from a former marriage when visiting Texas with her new hubbie John Lennon. Bob Hope was off to entertain the troops in South Vietnam... again leaving his wife for another Christmas alone. The recently launched Boeing 747 was considered by many to be a financial flop.

For those making purchases, a table model Flavel burner B600 with floor stand would set you back a whopping $169. Auto Supplies was selling potatoes at $12.50 per bag. The hot present for boys that Christmas was the now hideous looking Rudge Chopper with its small front wheel and loaf bread seat. Limacol was still trying to convince people that it would make a perfect Christmas present especially when combined with its powder. The classifieds were dotted with advertisements offering study courses in the United States.

At the cinema the world's most recognizable spy James Bond was bedding every girl west of Moscow in Diamonds are Forever. Carry on Camping and Doctor in Trouble at the Plaza promised "you'll go limp from laughter." Haathi mere Saath (Elephant is my companion) was playing at the Starlite Drive-in starring Rajesh and Tanuja.

In the cartoons James Bond was in "Manaus a rubber port on the Rio Negro up the Amazon river from Belem where Bond contacts the bush pilot suggested by Souza." Other strips were Dr Kildare and Mandrake.

Christmas 1980...
co-operative paranoia

By 1980, (there are no December Chronicles for 1981 in the National Archives) the country seemed to be slipping into a socialist quagmire. Indicative was a headline in the only newspaper left - the Guyana Chronicle for December 24 announcing an IDB grant for US$1.2M to "strengthen Guyana's national and regional planning structure and project execution system." It seemed like money well spent. No matter, congratulatory messages from world leaders were pouring in (don't they always!) for President Burnham on his recent landslide victory at the polls. There was no hint of any controversy. The newspaper was short on news and long on revealing opinion. Percy Hawkes inspired by an ants nest he had exterminated wrote on the Glaring Neglect of the PPP: "Surely with our adoption of the concept of co-operative socialism just 10 years ago it would be unrealistic to expect the transformation to be reflected so quickly; rather the idea motivating us is to build a society in which there is equal opportunity for all." Evidently, true equality would be "unrealistic." Disturbing paranoia was also creeping in. One columnist wrote, "we have to be committed to watchfulness since there is no knowledge at what point the Trojan Horse and saboteurs will appear." The popular snack was Rabbi's plantain chips... and the clean cut of synthetic bell bottoms had morphed into baggy denim pants available at Carewso's.

Sintrella soap on a rope, "was fresh in fragrance as nature itself."

This watchfulness obviously referred to persons dealing in contraband. The newspaper reported that on December 12 "two persons who pleaded guilty to a charge of being in possession of prohibited and uncustomed goods were fined $1250." Apparently the duo had been travelling in a car at the No 62 Toll Booth when they were found to be in possession of that most dangerous vegetable - the potato. Anita Marks of Georgetown was also charged for being in possession of 25 pounds of the dreaded potatoes "and 12 tins of sardines." It brings to mind the story of a forgetful West Berbice family who hid their sardines in the oven only to have them explode when they started baking a cake!

Meanwhile the Suriname navy was still harassing Guyanese fishermen in the Corentyne river detaining three trawlers and arresting fifteen. A Chronicle editorial noted that the Surinamese authorities "should exercise more flexibility and less arbitrariness in their attitude towards the fishermen."

Minister for West Berbice Oscar Clarke warned fishermen to steer clear. A younger Ian McDonald was lamenting the imminent loss to the heritage of the West Indies of the Codrington papers in a Sotheby's auction. "This is an absolute disgrace," he wrote - not for the last time.

President Carter would have a sore holiday having fallen in a skiing accident in the hills of Virginia and lovers in Hong Kong were rushing to get married before the unlucky Year of the Rat. The West Indies rejected a proposal by the Pakistan team to play on Christmas Day to make up for time lost from bad weather in the third test in Karachi.

At the cinemas Jackie Chan was already an 'Angry Eagle Deadly Snake'; Roger Moore (not THAT Roger Moore) was now the most recognizable spy in the world in the Spy Who Loved Me. The newspaper advertisement showed Jaws about to sink his metal teeth into 007's neck. The big Indian movie seemed to be Burning Train ("Exciting! Explosive! Electrifying!") starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini. Ingeniously the insurance company GCIS had used the occasion of the movie to suggest that bad things can happen any time and citizens should take out a policy immediately. Knock- kneed Jerry Lewis twenty years later was starring in Sailor Beware. "So I misplaced a destroyer you gotta make a federal case over it!" There was an article about how overseas Guyanese were coming back for the holidays. They were suffering pilferage from their suitcases at Timerhi and the Georgetown Public Hospital was having trouble finding suitable blood donors; everyone's alcohol content was too high and the only blood type available was R.u.m.

Perhaps the most timeless complaints came from Lionel Luckhoo who in his New Year's wishes hoped "GEC would have a year of electrifying progress. They hit such a low one in 1980 whatever they do in 1981 will be deemed progress." 2. "The Garbage city... One only has to look in the yards and the alleyways to conceive the absence of cleaners. Every city does it. Ours does not." 3. "The people who sell on the paves have a right to sell but let them be provided with such amenities that they may vend their wares without congesting the sidewalk." Luckoo wished that "the discovery of oil will be an established fact. Uranium will be fully identified and that our hydropower move on progressively towards the goals set by our President."

But the exclamation mark should come after an article which stated with the utmost confidence that "Guyana will soon stop importing machinery that features imperial measures and weights in keeping with the national decision to go metric in 13 months." twenty-two years later a pound of potatoes is still a pound of potatoes but only now they are legal.