Entry 356.

Christmas is such an important cultural ritual. Daniel Miller, my old PhD supervisor, describes Christmas as the most global and local of festivals at the same time. It’s materialistic, but also unapologetically about family and kinship. It enables us to keep up with the newest and latest in modern products on the internet and TV and, yet, is celebrated for its distinctly historical customs.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is also an unapologetically nationalistic moment for affirming that, despite corruption, inefficiency and inequality, “Trini Christmas is the best”.

If you’ve had a hard year, struggle to figure out your next step each morning and sometimes wonder at the point of life, there’s a sense of belonging that this season can provide across ethnicity, religion and geography. But, can we also see the effects of economic tightening on changing social practices of tradition, home and family?

There were probably 15 000 workers retrenched in the last four years, and it doesn’t seem possible that they have been fully reabsorbed into the legal labour market. Many were factory and refinery workers. Others were public servants and even tertiary educators.

In addition, there’s an entire tier in the public service on short-term contracts of a month or three months, with no wage security. There is also a broad informal economy affected by these lay-offs, such as those in catering or hair dressing. Only so many of these could be surviving as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Yet, the malls and grocery stores were full of shoppers. Where is all the money coming from? How are so women and men managing a time of year that relies on having money to spend?

Would these under-employed or unemployed women and men be looked after by family with more stable income, and invited to their homes this Christmas as costs for food and drink are absorbed by those with more, as part of the spirit of giving?

Would those with more time and less money help out more with preparations such as cooking and cleaning of the house, putting in greater labour as their contribution to collective sharing? Do neighbours still expect to be able to drop by for drink, and has this become more important as human connection bridges hardship at these times?

Giving toys to poor children has long been an act of generosity by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Have the numbers of these children increased? What are the shifts felt by our youngest, whose parents may be working more jobs or longer hours to earn the same income, and for whom this has become a time of anxiety and management of their self-presentation for when they return to school in January?

As social as Christmas is, it’s also deeply economic, and can tell us much about families’ adjustment to new realities. Still, keep in mind that these realities are cyclical, and another generation will remember us being here before.

Miller’s research on Christmas was conducted in the 1980s, and presents a curious mirror to now, given the downturn that characterized the early part of that decade. The Trinidad Mirror of December 13, 1988 begins, “Do you remember the time when you couldn’t get that Christmas feeling unless your home was well stocked with Europe’s best whisky, cognac, brandy and wines, not forgetting the apples and grapes that lent some colour to the joyous occasion?” The Christmas Day Sunday Guardian supplement contrasted the year to an earlier boom period when, ““It was a straight case of who could outdo who . . . who could have the bigger staff party; who could buy the more expensive gifts.”

As nostalgic as Christmas is, we are unlikely to return to our elders’ coping strategies with greater poverty.  Miller quotes Angela Pidduck,  in the Trinidad Express, 19 Dec. 1990, describing how her “grandmother pulled out the old hand sewing-machine, she cut the curtains and Morris chair cushion covers, we the children (boys and girls) took turns turning the handle . …But there was warmth, sharing and love.

Warmth, sharing and love will carry us through the day and its demands, just as it has carried the country through the financial struggles of our energy-dependent economy.

As you eat, drink, unwrap gifts and admire new curtains, painted walls and polished floors, know that many had to make difficult and creative decisions to connect to a tradition that excludes as much as it creates belonging, and is expressed by care as much as by money in a recession year.

 

Post 79.

As I get older, I realise I have fewer and fewer things to prove to people. Take for instance, an ironic encounter that I had with four older women last night. I was at the Network for NGOs for the Advancement of Women’s Annual ‘Young Woman of the Year’ Award Ceremony.

I had been told that the event was ‘very formal’ as in more properly dressed than not-jeans and, if you know me, you know that as soon as I heard that I knew that extra effort was going to have to be involved. So I raced home from work, ate, bathed, ironed (!), dressed and finished my speech in under an hour, and rocked out of the house feeling as authentically ‘put together’ as I get. Hazel had personally told me to wear proper shoes probably knowing that I turn up everywhere in sneakers so I wore my one pair of good heels and carried a stylish bag. There was no make-up, but it wasn’t a beauty contest I was entering (been there, done that) after all.

I roll in late, blaming the shoes and was escorted to a table with none other than Zalayhar Hassanali, widow of the late President of the Republic of T and T Noor Hassanali; Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Marlene Coudray, who stood up against PM Patrick Manning in court, ran the San Fernando City Corporation and has switched party affiliations from PNM to COP to UNC; Brenda Gopeesingh who has long been associated with the Hindu Women’s Organisation, a middle-class, conservative group whom she is a leading figure in and clearly more radical than; and two Raja Yoga Centre nuns.

Cool. I already knew most of these folks. For example, I met Mrs. Hassanali many years ago when I gave another feature talk, probably in one of my painted t-shirts, at a Child Welfare League event. On my way out, and never having even met her as the President’s wife, I mischievously asked for a lift into town (in the official President’s vehicle no less) and we chatted the whole way. Then and there, I decided the woman was cool.

Anyway, check me bonding with Sister Indira, sitting on my left. Don’t ask me how the conversation got there, but she managed to tell me that she thought my strapless top, part of a set with linen pants, wasn’t respectful given the event and my role as feature speaker.

Mash brakes! Here was I thinking I was looking youthful and stylish when that was clearly not how I was being read. It didn’t help that the raja yoga card I randomly got said something about our first achievement having to be self-respect. Sister Indira wondered if I had a scarf to sort of drape over my shoulders and maybe hide my tattoo a bit? Well, you coulda knock me off de chair.

But, hey, what does it matter to me? I pulled out the scarf which I brought exactly for this kind of moment and, in an attempt at righting the world, inquired from the others around the table if they also thought if I should put on the scarf, you know, to be more appropriate. Except for Brenda, who thought the whole thing hilarious and actually said how I wouldn’t let a man tell me what to wear why let a woman (Yaay Brenda!), there was a motherly and grandmotherly series of approving nods around the table. The ayes had it. I donned the scarf, which Sister Indira then lovingly adjusted because I clearly had no sense of what was required, and everyone seemed a bit more comfortable and satisfied all around.

Me, I was in shock. Here I am, almost 40 years old. I have three degrees. I pay my own bills. I done make child. I even married. I dey to give de feature speech. Do I have any authority? No. I was foremost daughter, grand-daughter, beti and young woman in their eyes and I wasn’t (apparently) at my most respectable. Did what I thought matter? No. If mothers, grandmothers and wizened older women knew best, was it worth rebelling in my old age, making some kind of generational statement, asserting my sense of individuality? No.

It was best to know that, no matter how old you are and whatever stripes you’ve earned along the way, aunties, mothers, grandmothers and the old ladies of our world do not care. They know what is right, they were glad to set me right and most important was that I perform a dutifulness that gave them the respect they were rightly due.

I had to laugh to myself, sitting there feeling like some teenager who, given the chance, they would have sent back inside to change. Me, big woman, never too old to be told what to wear, what is proper, and how I should carry myself and behave. Even if I disagreed, I still appreciated what I thought was an act of quiet, womanly care and advice on their behalf, only for my benefit, and I was glad I had in fact reached an age where I could just do as I was told, knowing that all they wanted was recognition of their greater experience and wisdom, and it took nothing from me to show a little deference.

Especially given that my speech was, among other things, about the need for abortion and lesbianism to be totally decriminalised. I figured my words would send my uncompromisingly anti-“respectable” message so that my bare shoulders didn’t need to.

Ah, the ironies of growing up woman.