The ushering of a new year has always been filled with superstitious beliefs and practices, stemming from the T&T’s melting pot of Amerindian, Spanish, French, British, African, Indian and Chinese heritage.
During an exclusive interview with Guardian Media, Rudolph Bissessarsingh, former teacher and father of T&T’s beloved historian the late Angelo Bissessarsingh said many aspects of New Year’s traditions have been lost while some have remained.
He said the urban and rural traditions differed, noting that isolation and deprivation sparked creativity in rural communities.
As a child six decades ago, Bissessarsingh said his father Eulick killed a goat and a pig every Old Years Day. The goat would be strung from a poui tree with a pot beneath to catch the blood. This was cooked and was a feast for the family. From the pig, they made the black pudding and they baked ham on a coal pot along with cakes made with the eggs of common fowl.
Back then, Bissessarsingh said there were no toy shops so his father and uncles whittled pieces of wood to make dolls, guns and whistles for him and his siblings, Patricia, Ann Marie, Julius and Rose-Marie.
Sometimes Eulick would hang a curtain and place a candle behind it. There he would make puppet shadows and tell thrilling tales.
The folktales of douens (spirit children with feet turned backwards), la jablesse (devil woman), soucouyant (flying female flame ball) and lagahoo (devil dragging a chain) were all included in the stories.
“In the urban areas we had parang but in the countryside, people had no parang so when darkness fell there was no exchange of visitors. The fear of La Jablesse was great so all the activities centred on food, drinks and noise. There was a noise addiction,” he explained.
Bissessarsingh said they made explosions using tin cans and carbide. Bursting of bamboo was also a fun past-time. At the stroke of midnight, shop owners would usher in the new year with gunshots.
“Every shopkeeper back then had a double-barrel gun and once the new year arrived, we would hear the sound of the gunshots echoing from Siparia all the way down to Santa Flora,” he said.
Bissessarsingh said another tradition was the wearing of new clothes for new years. He said his mother Theresa Bissessarsingh stayed up late many nights sewing a new suit of clothes for the entire family.
Bissessarsingh said in those times there were radio programmes where people with families abroad could call in.
“We could hear them saying hello from Canada where a fresh flurry of snow had just fallen,” Bissessarsingh recalled.
He said people back then had many superstitions. One of these involved the gifting of a suitcase. If you walked in and out the door at the dawn of the new year or stood on a four corner road when the new year arrived, you were sure to travel in the new year.
He said people cleaned their home from top to bottom with a cocoyea broom to “sweep away the blight of the old year.”
His father gave all of them a penny to stick under the soles of their shoe so they would get financial success wherever they are. Some made sure to have money in their wallets, others cooked black-eyed peas for success while many more burnt incense to get health, wealth and prosperity in the new year.
He noted that many rural communities in the colonial days could not afford to buy alcohol in the pre-independence era so they made wine out of fruits like cherries, guava, sorrel and figs. He said a thick red fig was distilled and used to make a bush rum.
Curator of the Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of T&T Patricia Bissessar said some of T&T’s traditions are similar to what is practised in other parts of the world.
She said the cleaning of the house, washing of all dirty laundry and the burning of incense to obliterate any blight or evil forces were common in traditional and modern society.
Bissessarsingh said after posting about her family’s own New Years tradition she was heartened to see hundreds of people posting about their own beliefs and traditions.
She said the traditions of the past were all centred on building family life and cohesion within the family.