Tony Deyal | All in a good Claus
Comedian Bob Hope quipped, "I've been with NBC so long. I was here when the peacock was just an egg." Not to be outdone, Groucho Marx, the quickest wit in town, commented on how long he had been in Hollywood: "I've been around so long, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." Well, I've been around so long that I was in Trinidad several years before Santa Claus came here for Christmas.
What happened is that we grew up in the clutches of the British empire. We sang "God Save Our Gracious King" and a whole lot of Christmas carols long before Santa Claus announced that he was coming to town.
Being children in a country village where religion was not an issue when it came to celebrating Christmas, the lyrics in the songs were not as familiar to us as they were to those who composed them. Although many of us went to school barefooted, we were aware of the words of the carol "While shepherds washed their socks by night" and other favourites, from the radio around which we crouched to listen to the children's programmes, like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Stranger" and "Olive the other reindeer".
However, our teachers went for the big, complex stuff like Good King Wenceslas (which we could not spell) and "We Three Kings of Orient are". This country was not in the mandatory Collins Atlas. One other thing we never understood was the implications of "Dasheen through the snow." The English education did not make provision for this and could be grounds for the disillusionment we eventually suffered that led to the fall of the empire. Worse, there was no television, Internet or even village cinema to initially enlighten us.
While American children had their Santa, we had Father Christmas, the traditional English name for the central person in Christmas who first appeared in the mid-17th century after the puritan roundheads won the English Civil War and decided to ban Christmas.
In the battle for the minds of the English, the defeated royalists started a propaganda war based on bringing back the old-time days of Christmas merriment. Then, in the 19th century, Father Christmas started sharing gifts and wearing a long red, hooded gown trimmed with white fur. This is how we children of the empire met Father Christmas early in our lives.
The British managers and factory owners, as well as the bosses in the oilfields, first introduced the custom to their workers and they became part of our culture and expectations. Now Father Christmas has given way to Santa Claus, but in the first few years of our lives, my cousins and I looked out anxiously for Father Christmas and the gifts he brought us on Christmas Eve. They were cheap and simple, so that while I believe Santa Claus brought better ones, perhaps because of the changes in our lifestyles and the variety of toys and books available in the later years, I still remember those early years with Father Christmas.
We would rush out of bed on Christmas Day with all the boys playing stick-em-up with their cap guns while the girls showed off their dolls to one another. I am not sure why, but the food tasted better then, even though we were still suffering from the privations of the Second World War that had ended a few days before I was born, and until I was nine years old, we had the system of 'rationing' of staple foods still in place.
I suppose to show how far we had come as a nation, it was around 1988 that working in the national sugar company, Caroni (1975) Ltd., I decided to have a change to our normal family Christmas toy distribution. Up to that time, Santa either came on a 'bull-cart' or was driven to the playground (where the function was held) on a fire truck.
Believing that it would be a great thrill for the children, I decided that I would have Santa arrive by helicopter. Unfortunately, Santa had a few drinks before embarking, and he and Rudolph had the same colour nose. Worse, he had a big meal as part of his pre-Christmas celebrations. Worst of all, he had never travelled in a helicopter before and became seriously airsick.
In the meantime, the crowd had been strengthened by non-employees from the village of Couva, many of whom had been given free government housing on the outskirts of our factory and installations, and were originally from other parts of the country where events like these were few and far between. They and their children were anxious, agitated and outnumbered our workers who patiently waited behind them.
The helicopter was delayed because of Santa-related issues, but eventually, the subordinate clauses persuaded and pushed on board and they circled the field, creating enormous excitement among those at the forefront of the crowd. Not anticipating such a large and boisterous turnout, we did not have many of our police around so that when the helicopter landed there was a rush towards it, the police were knocked out of the way or trampled, and Santa was mugged. They took and tore apart the bag of goodies.
Every toy was 'raffed' before the staggering Santa could properly totter out of the helicopter. The pilot was afraid and was worried about damage to his machine. And I stood there, initially aghast, but then, realising there was absolutely nothing I could do, I let my mind drift back to the days of Father Christmas and the absolute happiness of those early Christmases.
Up to that time, I had never witnessed Santa being mugged. Christmas had remained simple. Poor though we were, there was always food and a gift for me. My father would come home pretty late, but there was a Christmas Eve night when he and his friends, at about midnight, made enough noise to wake up the owner of a Siparia store and even got him to gift-wrap a nightgown for my mother.
I remember going to midnight Mass in the Catholic Church and making a joke about The First Noel (one of my schoolmates, Curlis Noel). Later, in my late and uproarious teens, we gained a reputation for our rendition of Silent Night. We did not render but instead rended it and the eardrums of our neighbours. However, it was our first successful venture into carolling. We were able, by dint of our volume, to get back from our grateful neighbours all the money we had lost earlier playing cards. We drank to their health using their money. It was Joy to the World as we had ourselves a very Merry Christmas.
- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that he has now reached the fourth stage of his Christmas journey. First, he believed in Santa; second, he did not believe in Santa; third, he was Santa. Now, he looks like Santa.