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What Christmas Means to Guyanese

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First Lady of Guyana, Arya Ali, poses with a group of Guyanese men and women dressed in Christmas Clothing

First Published: 25th of December, 2021

Last updated: December 26, 2021 at 18:01 pm

In some countries, Christmas has a predominantly religious significance. Those are countries which have a predominantly Christian population. In other countries, Christmas has only a cultural significance – a time to make merry and spread goodwill in solidarity with Christians around the world. And in some countries, it is a mix of both religious and cultural significance. Guyana is one such country where Christmas is celebrated by the entire population for both cultural and religious reasons.

Christmas is a tradition introduced to Guyanese by European colonists during the days of slavery and subsequent indentureship. Most Africans converted to the religion of the colonial masters, but a far smaller fraction of East Indian indentured laborers converted. Nevertheless, Christianity remains the largest religious group in Guyana with over 50% of Guyanese identifying with one of the many Christian denominations.

In Christian traditions around the world, Christmas is a holiday set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ whom Christians believe to be the savior of the world. And in Guyana, many Christians attend church services on Christmas Day and hold the holiday to its religious significance.

At the same time, non-Christians of Guyana also celebrate Christmas although they pay little attention to the religious significance of Christmas. For those people, Christmas may be a time of sharing gifts – especially to children, cooking special foods, and imbibing in alcohol. Pepperpot is the dish of choice for many Guyanese at Christmas time.

While non-Christians may not be concerned with the religious significance of Christmas, they celebrate it in solidarity with their Christian counterparts or as a time of relaxation and merriment after a hard year’s work. The Christmas Celebrations are, needless to say, closely followed by the Old Year and New Year Celebrations – making the holidays from mid-December to early January a festive season. In the first week of January, it’s back to work and business as usual.

Christmas Day, December 25th, is a National Holiday in Guyana, South America. If the day falls on the weekend, the following Monday is given as a day off from work and school. For example, December, 25th, 2021 fell on a Saturday, and although Christmas will be celebrated on this day, the following Monday, (27th) will be assigned a day off from work and school.

While Christmas is a Christian Holiday, some denominations of the Christian religion, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, do not celebrate Christmas because, they say, the holiday has its root in pagan Roman traditions.

Against the backdrop of its religious and cultural significance, Christmas is largely a commercial enterprise in Guyana. While some celebrate it for religious reasons and some for fun, one thing is sure: people shop much more during the Christmas season than at any time of the year.

During the Christmas season, businesses take advantage of the generous nature of people to push promotions. On Christmas Eve, some towns are jampacked with activities and stores and market places stay open late at nights. During the Christmas season, Guyanese purchase items, such as Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and other Christmas decorations, which they will not use for the rest of the year, and which may often not last until the next Christmas.

Further, the Christmas holidays is a time for parties and staff socials for academic institutions, businesses, government offices etc, setting off a flurry of commercial activities.

Guyanese are generally a united people who stand in solidarity with each other, regardless of their religious affiliations. During Christmas, non-Christians celebrate with Christians for cultural reasons – just as Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups join into Phagwah activities, for example.

The President of Guyana, Dr. Irfaan Ali, and his wife, Arya Ali, who are both adherents of the Islamic Faith, sent out Christmas greetings to all Guyanese and engaged in many charitable and uplifting activities for the Christmas seasons. In the same, business owners across Guyana, regardless of their religion, help to spread the Christmas cheer by sending out greetings, giving in charity, etc.

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