© By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
“Santa Claus” and “Old Man Beggar” were once a unique art form in Liberia until the 1970s. I don’t know precisely when this type of entertainment got started, but those that I discussed the subject with, told me that it might have started during the Tubman Administration – sometime in the 1950s. However, Santa Claus and Old Man Beggar would appear during the Christmas season. Parents as well as their children looked forward to Santa Claus and Old Man Beggar entertaining them in their communities.
Unlike the Santa Claus or Old St. Nicholas of Western society, the Liberian Santa Claus and Old Man Beggar did not bring presents to children; instead, they used their gifts and talents to bring joy and happiness to the people through entertainment for which they got pay. This was an art form that produced its own unique music, dance and songs. Songs such as “Merry Christmas, We Are at ‘Your Door”, “We Are, We Are, Santa Claus We Are”; “Old Man Beggar, join the Beggar”; “Zamgba Die Kpelle People Put On Shoes”; “Monrovia Girl Stop Drinking Lysol, If You Want To Live Long, Stop Drinking Lysol”; “Ah Yea, Ah Yea, Sarah Rascal, You Eat My Money, You Say You Don’t Want Me”, and “Duugbomaa Saonyonkpenge” were among the popular songs the people were entertained with. There was a Speaker whose task it was to grace the occasion; and Old Man Beggar usually performed a special dance called “Hot, Hot Water, Klegbutu,” which most women enjoyed seeing Old Man Beggar perform.
Old Man Beggar was always dressed in raggedy clothes. Also, he had a big pot (beer) belly, while Santa Claus was elegantly dressed in the latest fashion. Santa Claus had names like “YGC” (Young Girl Chaser) and “SND” (Sea Never Dry). At one time, this writer danced as YGC, while Lott Carey Mooney and Yango Gibson who later sang and played guitar for the popular “Shade Band” were part of our group; Lott Carey sang and Yango played the guitar and Saw.
Whenever two Santa Clauses met, they competed to determine who the better performer was. Both Santa Claus and Old Man Beggar provided a unique entertainment for parents as well as their children during the Christmas season. This form of entertainment was something the people looked forward to every year. The organizers came mainly from the poor and working class neighborhoods.
The Speaker was an important character to the celebration. In a call and response fashion, he would begin the celebration by introducing Old Man Beggar in this manner:
“Toodayyy, time deliver one, one dayyy”. And in response, the audience would say – “ah yea”. The Speaker would continue: “I wonder why, poor Monrovia gone – on on.” (Audience) “ah yeaaa”. The Speaker would then begin his speech (usually dressed in coat and tie with a ledger/writing pad in his hand):
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Women and Men, Boys and Girls, Old People and Young People, on behalf this poor, old, unfortunate man, I bring you season greetings from the most highest, omnipotent person in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Ruler and Prince of Peace.
“My encounter with Dr. Mr. Old Man Beggar (pointing to him) began the 1st day of December. Early that morning, the woman I was staying with, Ma Sarah, sent me on the beach to buy fish to cook ‘Pepper Soup’ for Papa, her husband who was home sick with fresh cold; there I met this ‘big hellever’ man with big pot belly (pointing to his stomach), dressed in raggedy clothes lying on the beach. At first, I thought he was dead. I was so scare, I was about run when he said to me, ‘Young man, don’t be afraid, I am a harmless old and hungry man, I need your assistance. Please help me! Can’t you see the way I look? Come closer for me to tell you my misfortune.’”
I went closer to him, that’s when he told me the whole story about his ordeal, which begun like this:
“Young man, don’t let my looks fool you! I am no small potato; I am an important person who was returning home after many, many years of study abroad – America, England, France, Russia, Germany, Japan and China, where I earned my GED, BSc, MA, Ph.D., M.D., D.D.D., KGB, FBI, AT&T, CBS, ABC, NBC, NBA, NFL, MTV in dancecology, musicology, lyricology, sportscology, newscology, communicationcology, philosophy, science, and ethics. While returning, we met up with a terrible storm that wrecked our ship; and all my belongings, food, clothes, certificates, diplomas, degrees, and other important documents that I was traveling with got lost; all of the 365 persons on board with me drowned, except me. Doesn’t that tell you something? Perhaps, the Almighty GOD saved my life in order for me to spread his MESSAGE OF LOVE to mankind”.
Right than, I made up my mind to help Dr. Mr. Old Man Beggar, and at the same time, I thought of the Good Samaritan story Jesus told to the lawyer:
“A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers took his clothes, beat him, and left him for dead. A priest came down the road and saw him and passed him by. Then a Levite came along and saw him lying there and did not stop.
“But a Samaritan came down the road and saw the man. He had compassion and went to the man to help him. He put bandages on his wounds, took him to an inn, and looked after him.
“When it was time for the Samaritan to leave, he gave the innkeeper some money to take care of the man, adding: ‘If you spend more, I will repay you when I return.’
“Now I ask you,’ said Jesus, ‘which was truly a neighbor to the man who was robbed?’ The lawyer answered: ‘The one who showed mercy and helped him.’
“Then Jesus said: ‘Go and do likewise.”
“The Good Samaritan story motivated me to take Dr. Mr. Old Man Beggar home; I had him to scrub (bath) with hot, hot water, and I fed him. Afterwards, I summoned all of my friends with musical talent (pointing to the crew, which consisted of singers, drummers, the Saw Player, the Money Collector, etc.) for us to take Dr. Mr. Old Man Beggar around to spread GOD’s message of LOVE through song and dance to raise enough money in order to continue his journey around the world.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the true story of Dr. Mr. Old Man Beggar”.
While conducting my research, I was told that the reason this annual entertainment came to a halt in 1971 was – President William R. Tolbert made it a requirement for the organizers of Santa Claus and Old Man Beggar to obtain business license before performing anywhere in the country. This requirement led to the demise of this once unique art form of Liberia. In similar manner, President Samuel K. Doe outlawed the shooting of “Fire Crackers” during the Christmas season because he feared that attempted coup’s gunfire would be mistaken for someone shooting “Fire Crackers.” It is this kind of behavior that has contributed the undemocratic practices in Liberia, and many parts of Africa.
By the way, there is another thing that makes us a “special” breed of people, that is – the way we use the English Language. The example that readily comes to mind is, a person looking for work down Waterside or Baker (market), would say, “Who want work, who want work?” instead of saying, “I want work, I want work”. Since it is he that is looking for work, why ask, “Who want work?” Anyway that’s what makes us Liberians, and unique!
I truly believe we could turn this uniqueness into something positive by being honest with ourselves, fair, objective and civil in discussing issues pertaining to our country, and more important to elect leaders who will not become our “lords” but rather be about he people’s business. Using this approach as a point of departure, within less than ten years, we could rebuild our beloved Liberia from its present state of hopelessness to greatness – beyond what it presently is. Furthermore, we must never take the simplest thing in life for granted, like we did with the annual entertainment provided by Santa Claus and his pal Old Man Beggar.
In closing, I say to all of you out there in Liberia and the Diaspora, let’s do our best to come together before it is TOO LATE.
Oh, before I forget, “Ba, my Christmas on you-oh!”
© Copyright-Nyanseor, December 25, 2003
2003: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive