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"MY KIND OF CHRISTMAS: REMEMBERING THINGS GONE BY"

by A.M. Milne
Trinidad Express
Tuesday November 21, 1989
p. 21
used with permission

As I grow older and more inclined to "pull the veil away from every illusion that makes life bearable," Christmas has lost much of its excitement and become largely a remembrance of things gone by. Left alone, I might let the date slip past unnoticed.

Christmas, I think, is principally a time for children, for Christians who love their religion, and for drinkers and feters. At different times I have been all of these but now am none.

Childless and unwed, and likely to remain so, there is, nevertheless, the contagious excitement of a growing number of nieces, a nephew and godson, and the progeny of innumerable cousins.

(Though I know how good it feels to be in love at Christmas, I think I can say, with Charles Lamb, that "I have spent a good deal of my time in noting down the infirmities of Married People, to console myself for those superior pleasures, which they tell me I have lost by remaining as I am.")

Blood ties in our family are strong, but the extended family is now so large, and so scattered about the world, that the kind of close-knit family gatherings that used to take place on Christmas or Boxing Day are now impossible.

A full-scale family gathering would involve exceptional talents of organisation, including the chartering of aircraft and the rental of a venue on the scale of the National Stadium. I don't really see it happening again, though every now and then some romantic soul (myself included) dares to express this hope. No doubt, many other families have experienced the same phenomenon.

Death, of course, has also taken its toll. The Patriarch (and, after his passing, the Matriarch) who once formed the magnetic nucleus of those far-off occasions is no longer with us. In his later years, the Old Man, a scholarly Creole gentleman who spoke patois, was always unwilling to break his Vow of Stability - but was often persuaded to do so on the Big Day.

Sometimes a little morose, or claiming some infirmity, he would nevertheless cheer up after two or three rum cocktails or ponche de cremes and engage in debate on current affairs with his sons - and might even be persuaded to give a brief exhibition of the Greetolay, his own version of the Castillian.

As the day wore on, and more cocktails were fired and ponche de cremes consumed, his grown-up daughters would gather about his wife, their adored mother, to weep buckets of tears for no reason that could be clear to a child.

Christmas has always had a strong religious element in our family of dogmatic Catholics, increasing now among the older heads as they approach the allotted span, and still preserved, if less fanatically, by most of the younger members. I remember the romance of the old Latin midnight mass, which really began at the stroke of midnight - and not, as is now fashionable, at eight or nine in the evening, said in a largely unpoetic English translation.

Christmas does still evoke a spirit of love, not just among Christians but also among people of other faiths. The Christmas tree, assuming new forms and ornaments, and in spite of the tantrums of the more xenophobic among us, still plays its part. But the tree, at least in households like ours, must be accompanied by the equally important Creche, carefully depicting the birth of Christ.

Besides this, there is the music and the food and drink, the reddening poinsettia, and cane arrows waving in the wind, not to mention the insufferable advertisements, which, for some reason, seem a little late this year.

In our household the inevitable Christmas records must be taken out and set carefully aside at about this time - carols, the usual sing-alongs, and parang (which is now, perhaps you have noticed, sometimes secular, and even sometimes in English, not Spanish, with a tassa or tabla occasionally in the background).

In our immediate family, of mixed heritage and traditionsyou will find a variety of food and drink, adding to the labours of the womenfolk. My great grandmother, descended from Englishmen and Danes in St. Kitts and St. Croix, liked cherry brandy. This has more or less gone out now. But the purely English fare still included mince pies and plum pudding, crowned with half a walnut which must be filled with rum and lit.

Then there is the Portuguese influence, Carne de Vinagre e Alhos (or Garlic Pork) - now spreading beyond its origins. And the Creole element (perhaps the best description), largely French and Spanish, some English, and perhaps a touch of West Africa: pastels, cured ham, ginger beer, and sorrel - my own favourite, though I confess I lazily make little contribution to its preparation, including the time-consuming picking of the red fleshy petals from the prickly seed pod.

(Afrophiles among us may be interested to know that a Nigerian friend at the University of the West Indies once told me that, in his country, sorrel is picked and boiled in the same way, but the red liquid that we can't do without is thrown away. The fleshly pieces, from which the red has been boiled out, are then eaten like a vegetable.)

The eating and drinking begins before Christmas Day, or course, though the rule in our household has been that the Garlic Pork must not be eaten until the morning of the day itself, on the same plate as the ham and pastels.

For many, the celebration carries over to Boxing Day, but I am then quite happy to be as far away from the action as possible.

GARLIC PORK

My grandfather's brother, Vincent Camacho (Uncle Vincie), who was born and lived all his life in Antigua, where there is a thriving Portuguese-West Indian community, wrote this recipe for Garlic Pork, Carne de Vinagre e Alhos, a traditional Portuguese Christmas dish:

To make six pounds of GARLIC PORK:

Six pounds fresh pork

Three bottles of vinegar (brown preferred)

Three or more heads of garlic

Half a teacup of pepper (bird pepper preferred)

Two small bundles of thyme

Add salt to taste

Empty one bottle of vinegar into an enamel bowl. Cut pork into desired sizes, usually about one cubic inch, and place in the bowl with the vinegar.

Wash the pork in the vinegar and then squeeze and place the pork in an earthenware jar or glass container (e.g. a large glass jar with glass lid).

Throw away the vinegar in which the pork was washed. Put one pint of vinegar in the bowl.

Strip garlic and mix with peppers and thyme. Crush these together through a mincer and place in a bowl with vinegar.

Add salt to taste and pour the whole into the jar over the pork. Add vinegar to cover the pork well. Stir contents of the bowl with a wooden spoon.

Cover the jar and leave to set for at least a day (two days is best). Leave the pork well covered with the vinegar, garlic, etc., until brown.

After eating, lick your fingers, for it's real good - muito delicioso.

MORE ARTICLES BY ANTHONY MILNE


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