Tony and the First Noel


By Anthony Deyal

The first Noel that I ever did see was a neighbour from Grenada. So too was the second Noel who went to secondary school with me and travelled on the same bus which was always so crowded by the time it reached our village that we couldn’t fight for seats, we had to push and shove one another for standing room. Most times the bus, which started at about five in the morning from a relatively far-away seaside community, was driven by someone we knew only as “Mash Mouth”. He was not only very angry whenever we called him by that name but was always ready to tell us what he did to our mothers and sisters with his flattened dental organ or orifice.

This is truly a common Trini response. Jack Warner, when questioned by local or national reporters about his wealth, immediately responded with, “Ask your mother!” This was like a policeman we called “Irma Jarret”. The Trini sense of humour includes calling a short man “Tall Boy” and a fat-man “Slim”. Irma Jarret was one of the national beauty queens and the policeman was not just ugly but had a big stomach and a bigger mouth. Knowing that he could not run fast enough to catch us, we shouted his nickname, “Irma Jarret!” from a distance. His response like Mash-Mouth and Jack was always about our female family and what he did to them and would do to us when he caught us.

The third Noel was also from Grenada. He taught me history and because I was the only student in the class, we spent our time talking about everything else but the Tudors and Stuarts. We had our own Sistine Chapel in a room in the Sixth Form library and I used to joke with him. Once I said, “European history is very confusing you know. First they say that this man who do the Mona Lisa is from Italy and then they say he from St Vincent.” He replied, “That is ridiculous. Nowhere have they ever said that.” “Yes, they did,” I pointed out. “The man name Leonardo da Vinci? So, if he is a Vinci, where else could he come from?”

Mr Noel knew me well enough to leave me to do my work. So apart from writing the occasional essay, I had time to “lime” with him. One day, approaching Christmas and knowing that he missed his home and family in Gouyave, a village in Grenada, I dared asked Mr Noel, “How come all the Noels come from Grenada? God give you a patent or what?” He laughed and I added, “Worse, they really mix-up history and geography you know. Your family, the first Noel that the angels did say was to a Sheppard, and the whole Sheppard family come from Barbados. Worse, the Sheppards descended from Oliver Cromwell. Is a good thing your parents named you Stanley and not Charles!”

Charles was the name of one of my cousins whose mother was a Presbyterian. The rest of her family, including my parents, were Hindu, I went to English Catholic (Anglican) Schools and became a Catholic before ending in a school run by the Irish Presentation Brothers whose Principal was Brother McCartan. Unfortunately, we youngsters were, like death, afraid of no one. We found out quite quickly that because of his obvious and increasing baldness our Principal’s nickname “donated” by the students was “Cockhead.” Boys being boys, when we saw Brother McCartan coming, we all shouted from afar, “Cockhead! Cockhead!”

All, that is, except one of the boys in the first form. He was within arm’s reach of Brother McCartan who grabbed him and said, “Why are you shouting and disturbing people like that? If you want Cockhead don’t stand up here calling for him, go and find him!” In telling my teacher, Mr Noel about it, we both agreed that if Brother McCartan was a Sheppard descended from Oliver Cromwell like the other people in his part of Ireland, the Noel family would have been wiped out before they even knew where Grenada was. Of course, we made jokes about it like “Ireland, where men are men and sheep are nervous” and “What’s an Irish seven-course meal?” A six-pack and a potato. I found out just a few years ago when I did a DNA test that I am just over 12 percent Irish and while that accounts for my love of potatoes, it does not explain my drink of choice in the old days, single malt Scotch.

Which brings me back to a version of the First Noel that one of the boys in my form contrived. He insisted that the Three Wise Men saw a star in the yeast and not the “east” and that the “more” and not “myrrh” they added to the gold and frankincense was bread. This is what led Christ to ask, “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread will give him a stone?” Or as my teacher Mr Noel said in jest, “It is why so many people get stoned for Christmas.”

What hits me so many years later is that even in the midst of sixth-form humour, we never lost our sense of the rightness of Christmas and what it stands for, especially what it should mean to all of us regardless of race, religion and country of birth or origin. In looking at how the different English-speaking Caribbean countries spend Christmas, it is clear how much we all have in common. Having lived in Barbados, Trinidad, Belize and Antigua, and also visiting and spending lots of time in most of them, I feel at home in all of them.

We string the halls with lights instead of boughs of holly and have a few events that are different, but the core is the same. Yet, at least three of the countries boast about why their Christmas is better than the rest of the region. While I understand that the competitiveness about having the best Christmas can spring from the dependence on tourism and the fight, known in many homes at Christmas time, for a bigger slice of the cake, the short-sightedness bothers me. Every country is trying to “one-up” their neighbours, all of whom speak the same language and have very similar Christmas celebrations.

Wherever I’ve spent Christmas – Canada or the US, home in a Hindu household when I was very young, later at a Catholic Mass or singing with the “parang” (from Spanish “parranda” meaning “spree” or “fete”) groups that came to our house or were from our street- I always had a feeling of one family, one God and one Christ. Actually, I have long believed that all religions are like rivers that empty into the same sea. So, while I loved and sang “We three kings of orient”, “Mary’s boychild” or even about wanting a piece of pork for my Christmas, what stays with me during the entire year and all my life so far is “Joy To The World”. It might be a dream, a hope, a prayer and a song but more, it is a wish that I carry with me wherever I go.

*Tony Deyal was last seen asking the prime ministers of the Caribbean, “If Mary and Joseph had a stable relationship, why can’t you?”


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