History of Christmas In Guyana – By Peter Halder

History of Christmas In Guyana

by Peter Halder

The observation and celebration of Christmas in Guyana dates back to the 17th century. It began, circa 1627, among the Dutch immigrants who had established permanent settlements in Essequibo. The celebration later spread to Berbice in 1627 and then Demerara in 1746.

The counties of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, which subsequently became British as a result of European wars, were merged in 1831 and became British Guiana.

In the new British colony, the largest ethnic population were African slaves captured by British and Dutch slave ships and brought to Guyana to work on colonial sugar plantations.  

Christmas was a popular season during the slavery era for most of the population except for the Amerindians who lived in scattered communities in the hinterland and observed and celebrated their own tribal festivals totally unrelated to Christianity.

It was peculiar at that time that while Christmas was about the birth of Christ, for a long while, little religious emphasis was placed on it. The few churches which were in Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara in the 17th century held no Christmas Services on December 25 or on Boxing Day, December 26.

The religious observation and celebration of Christmas may be linked to the coming of the Rev. John Wray. In 1810, the London Missionary Society, a Protestant body, sent him to Guyana. He set up a Mission for slaves at Plantation Le Ressouvenir, a large cotton estate on the East Coast of Demerara. A church building was constructed and was named Bethel Chapel. It had a congregation of some 600 people.

The Rev. John Wray launched the religious observation of the Christian Festival of Christmas at his church. Church sermons featured the birth and life of Jesus Christ. An added feature was baptisms and marriages on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. The popularity of the Christmas Services and their added attractions gave the slaves forbearance to their miserable lives, remembering how Jesus Christ was beaten and crucified on the Cross. Christmas Celebrations quickly spread throughout the country and was popularly known as “the Season of Festivity.” From then to today, Guyanese extend to family, friends and anyone “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Festive Season.”

Christmas and the Christmas Season were celebrated not only by the African slaves but by their white masters as well, each in their own way. The occasion expanded from just religious services to family parties and get-togethers on Christmas and Boxing Day. Special lunches and dinners for families and friends translated into feasting and drinking which remains the culture until this day. The whole country became a moving scene of feasting, drinking, dancing, gaiety. Cheerful groups traversed the lanes and paths in villages dressed in gaudy trappings, hair cut and fashioned in a variety of shapes, some decorated with beads, bits of ribbons and tinsel ornaments. They were accompanied by drumbeat and singing. Some wore wigs.

Christmas also became a time for gift giving. It perhaps was initiated by the white gentry who shared out clothing, food items and drinks, including alcohol, to their slaves and at the same time wishing them a Merry Christmas. The slaves accepted the gifts for what they were worth but never forgot the whip lashes they received or expected in the future from their masters.  But inspired by the idea and the Christian charity of it all, slaves also began to give gifts of whatever they could afford to their immediate families. And so gift giving became consonant with the Christmas Season.


*** Acknowledgement To The Christian Property Magazine, December 2008.

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  • Pat Robinson Commissiong  On July 25, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Please make a correction to the first sentence – 1627 is the 17th century not the 15th.
    It’s not surprising that the first churches established by the Dutch did not have Christmas celebrations. The 17th century was the height of religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants/Reformers. (The Thirty Years’ War was 1618 to 1648, just the time the Dutch were first active in what is now Guyana) Much of the population of the Netherlands were Protestants. 17th century Protestants objected to Christmas celebrations a “Popish”, that is, a Catholic practice. In fact, Christmas celebrations were even banned at times, for example, in England during Interregnum or Commonwealth (1649-1660,the period between the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of the Monarchy). In Scotland, too, Presbyterians banned Christmas celebrations. In the American colonies Puritans objected to celebrations as well. The celebrations we know and love today are essentially an 18th and 19th century (especially the latter) phenomenon that incorporated much older medieval English and/or Germanic customs.

  • Peter Halder  On July 26, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Thanks for pointing out the obvious mistake and for your input. The date has been changed to the 17th century.

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