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The Christmas Gombey

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Cha'Von Clarke
(Dedicated to my grandfather, Mr Henry 'Growther' Wilson, Master Gombey Drummer).

The evil spirits shunned their ugly faces from the revealing shimmers of cut mirrors adorning the regal cape. They screamed as their presence dissolved into the bitter heat-absorbed asphalt and there they lay while the harmony and rhythmic beats of Bermuda Gombeys drowned their existence.The colourful crowd gathered and children from the Island performed unique spirit dances as all heard the whistles, bells and drumming, signaling Bermuda's beautiful tradition of the Gombey. Boxing Day had come and from the time the rooster welcomed the new day, the streets were blessed with the most intriguing custom held dear to the Island's renowned history.The Gombey troop led their following through the streets, pausing at homes that welcomed all with food and drink and encouraged the group to perform on their lawns. Little Petey Trimingham's house on Pitt's Bay Road offered nothing less than a feast and invited the entire troop into their home. Petey could barely hold his excitement each year! He was now seven years old and determined to dance with the stunning Gombeys. As soon as he heard the drum beat, he leapt from his bed and rushed over to the window. He watched as the tall peacock hats in the distance swayed to and fro as the dancers moved throughout the streets!It was time!Petey ran to his closet and pulled out his own hat, fully-trimmed with mask and green and red wool outlining the borders. Ms Davis, the Trimingham family nanny, instructed Petey on how to make the Gombey hat and mask and they spent days making it just right with beautiful beads, mirrors and ribbon.Petey carefully rested the hat on his side table and rushed back to the closet. Twinkling in the back was the most fascinating Gombey costume ever made. Ms Davis showed him how to fix the skirt, scarf and gloves many times so within minutes, Petey stood dressed and ready to make his debut. He crept over to the door and peeked into the hallway. It appeared that everyone was outside so he quickly moved to the stairs and slowly made his way through the kitchen. He moved smoothly and deliberate, just like a Gombey would, but just as he reached the back door he realised that he forgot his Gombey ax. After a brief pause, he ran upstairs and reached high on the shelf of the closet for his weapon of choice.When he opened the door to his bedroom the second time, he saw a shadow in the hall but he couldn't make out who it was. See, the hallway on the second floor of the Trimingham home was very long and there were several dark areas along the way. Petey was sure that his family shared the estate with ghosts of the past and he spent many nights afraid but today was different. He closed his door, counted to ten and then moved out into the hall. As his maneuvered downstairs, his cape of beaded jewels and mirrors glistened, protecting him from all evil spirits.Finally, he reached the top of the steps and looked down on the huge Christmas tree his parents purchased from Gorham's hardware store. He remembered piling into the car to pick out the largest and most beautiful tree on the Island, a Trimingham family tradition. Christmastime was also great because his parents finally took a break from work and spent ‘family time' with Petey and his sisters. They joined with other families and set about the neighbourhoods singing Christmas carols and even volunteered their time at senior homes and the hospital. His church, St. Mark's Cathedral, put together Christmas bins for needy families around the Island.Yes, Petey loved Christmas for many reasons but the top reason was that he knew he would see the Gombeys on Boxing Day (December 26). Petey enjoyed everything about the mysterious Gombey, including the historical facts. Ms Davis explained that the idea of the Gombey was dated back to slavery. Gombeys were created during the 17th century by slaves brought to Bermuda from West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. The Gombey dances have names and are borrowed from many cultures. “Gombey” is derived from an African word meaning rhythm, and the dance itself is part West African, Caribbean and American Indian. The musical instruments usually accompanying the dance are a kettle drum, two snare drums, and a fife, a small high-pitched flute). The dance was performed primarily on Christmas and Easter Holidays. Gombeys originally performed only on Boxing Day and New Year's Day, when slaves were allowed a rest day, and celebrated freedom with extensive festivities and dances. The Gombeys would also tell Biblical stories through dance.The slave would cover himself from head to toe so that his slave master would not be able to identify him. Each aspect of the costume had meaning and the peacock feather was chosen for the top of the hat to show that no matter what the slaves had endured, they were still proud of whom they were and in that, they would soon be free.Petey was taught in Sunday school that God loves everyone, regardless of the colour of one's skin. Christmastime is when we all reflect on God's unconditional love but Petey also knew that we should love one another all year ‘round! This is why Petey decided to use Christmas colours of red, gold, green, silver and white for his Gombey suit.Petey knew that his parents would never allow him to dance with the Gombeys. Though they welcomed them onto their lawn and offered drinks, he knew that it was only due to the Christmas season, so he didn't tell anyone about his plan to join the dance this year.Once he made it to the kitchen door, he tip-toed around the corner of the house and saw lots of people in a circle around the Gombeys. He could hear the bass drum and started to bop his head immediately. Then he moved his feet to the snare drum and jerked his body forward with the ax on his shoulder. Beyond his control, his eyes closed and his body moved around the yard and when he reopened them, he saw hundreds of eyes on him. He was right in the middle of the circle and the crowd cheered him on!Though he had planned this a million times in his head, he now stood frozen, unsure of what to do next but the Captain, in a long majestic cape and a hat with extra tall feathers (at least it seemed that way to Petey), blew his whistle and signaled for another small Gombey to join Petey for a Cock Fight. He watched the little feet move around him with style, charisma and passion. His eyes moved up and he saw the legs criss-crossing slowly and the arms moving in coordination with the drumbeat. The crowd was silent with only light breathing full of anticipation of what would happen next.As Petey's eyes met the mask of his opponent, his body started to move with grace and confidence and within seconds he joined the Gombey and their fight looked as if it were a unity dance instead of a battle. Each movement was calculated and designed by studying the rival's strategy.The crowd went crazy! The drummers felt the energy and picked up their rhythm! The Captain danced nearby and soon signaled for the other dancers to join in! Petey proudly danced along with the Gombeys and truly felt accepted!Just before his father spoke, inviting everyone in the house for delicious minced pies, rum cake and Barritt's Ginger Beer, Petey sneaked through the crowd and rushed to the back door, up the stairs and down the hall towards his bedroom. When he opened the door, he heard his mother's voice in the open closet and stood in shock. She walked out and stood staring down at him. Then she smiled and continued towards him. Her hug was warm and she whispered in his ear, “Welcome Home, my Christmas Gombey!”That was many years ago and as the elderly man looked intently at the beautiful Christmas tree near the window of the Pembroke Rest Home, I heard the whistles, bells and drum beat of the Gombey troop making their way towards the building. They stopped right outside and I helped Mr Pete Trimingham to the door and down the walkway. The crowd opened when they saw he was near and a small child handed him a beautiful hand-painted ax. Petey, even at 72 years of age, moved the crowd and excited the drummers, adding Christmas spice to an extraordinary Bermudian tradition.The legend of The Christmas Gombey will proudly live on in the hearts of Bermudians for years to come!