Thursday, 24 December 2015

My Little Christmas!


Whatever I do, I cannot replicate the Christmas of my childhood. The joy and love I felt during Christmas remains in a secret place in my mind and heart, at some ventricular location for life and beyond. I have tried and failed incessantly to create the scenes and the days, which in my mind, made the days “the days”. I tried for my children, but failed. But, I hope I can create for them something new, something that will remain in their memories and in some ventricular locations of their hearts for life.
For those who spent their childhood in Delhi in the early ‘80s, know that winter creeped in earlier those days. November brought with it a cold nip and mist. The early morning mist was grey, yet beautiful in its newness. With festivities in the air, people would begin to pull out woollens. By 11 a.m. the sun would shine bright most days. Ladies would beat and lay out razais on the terrace; the older kids would help peel peas sitting on mudas basking in the sun. There would be another dari, weighed down by martabaans filled with achaar on four corners, with woollens drying out in the sun in preparation for the long and grey winter. This would be the start of my festive excitement.
Then, would come December; chilly and cold. We, my sister and I, would be packed in layers of clothing. A vest, half sweater, high neck, full sweater and, if we were heading out, a fur coat or a jacket as the outer layer. My sister loved cuddling me in that state – a round ball of fur – she would call me. When my mother felt the cold wind hit her in the auto, she would ask me to sit on her lap and cuddle me, a round ball of fur! That was our trip to Greater Kailash or Lajpat Nagar to buy dry fruits for the plum cake on Christmas. This was early December, early enough to prepare the dry fruits for the cake to be done on time. We each got our new Christmas dress in these trips, new shoes, and some new ornaments for our tree.
We did not have a big tree. It was small, but it was a real tree in a white pot which was almost as big as the tree itself. Our neighbour, who worked in the Horticulture Department of the Government, had brought one for us. It was our pride, a real coniferous tree. We nurtured it for two years, kept it indoors in the summer, pushed it out in the winters, fed it egg shells and used tea leaves, procured cow dung for it from the garbage dump outside the colony, a procurement that was a task in itself.
At night, Maa and I would head out with our garbage to dump it by hand at the dumpster just outside the colony. We would empty our garbage bag and with a little scooper that Maa had acquired for her gardening requirements, scoop in some dried dung left over by the cow who fed on the garbage during the day. However, inspite of every effort, our Christmas tree died its natural death unable to bear the heat of the Delhi summers. We were upset at the loss, and yet the following December nothing could keep our Christmas spirit at bay.
December 1st would also bring the onset of carols. As a child, I had gladly taken upon myself the task of reminding my family it was December 1. I would put on the
Jim Reeves cassette of carols early morning. The early morning Doordarshan title song on AIR was followed by our own cassette of carols, which set the mood in our house. It was a practice I picked up in school. Our principal would put on the Jim Reeves carols starting December 1 for the entire month in the afternoons as we headed to board the buses for our journeys back home.
At home, Ma would have fruits cut and coated with flour spread out on trays across the dining table. The forbidden fruit, it was. We were not supposed to eat them, but which child has ever listened to her parents!
The numerous rounds of baking, and traditional Kerala snacks, achappam, diamond cuts and murukku, that were made every year for Christmas filled the house with such aroma that juggled every sense in my mind. An aroma that brings a carol to mind whenever the snacks are made round the year!
Each day, we would wait for the postman at 12 noon to get a glimpse of the cards that came that day. Who remembered us this Christmas? Was it a 3D card? Was it a shiny card? Did they write any personal message inside? Was there a letter in there? We would easily receive 30 cards, some years more, and these would adorn the top of our T.V. case that stood next to the tree as short as our tree.
After a month long decorating, cooking and eating spree, came the day we had all been waiting for, the 24th night Christmas mass. For anyone who knows the Delhi chills, knows that 24th night will be the cold and chilly. Even to this day, when the winters have become warmer and start much later, whatever the temperature till 23rd, the 24th night is cold. And, those are the days of a white Christmas that are etched in my memory. The dress which was kept untouched for nearly a month, the precious princess dress, would come out and I would be dressed to perfection.
As we would walk to church, yes walk, it was a safer place back then and people walked in groups with neighbours, friends and family; chatting and chattering, the kids in front, the elders behind. Each of us hoping the other noticed their new dress. Did she notice the pink that blushes my cheek, the tinge of colour on my lips, my new shiny sandal? Oh yes! Some of us would notice, but some of us would just be covered from head to toe.
My most distinct memory of the mid-night mass is from when our church was under construction. Since the main building was under construction, mass was held in a tent, decorated to a hilt. The elders were allowed to sit in chairs, but the children were expected to sit on the daris in front under the watchful eye of the parish priest. That was something I despised on regular Sundays, but loved on Christmas. Did the other kids see my dress? Was I looking great? Did Sister X see my dress? Did Jesus see my dress?
This particular Christmas was a distinct memory for a specific reason. The winter chill combined with the external setting of the mass filled the bladder of many a believer. With no place to relieve oneself in the open and the length of the mass extending beyond the human capacity of the pressurised, desperation found a way out. I ran back to my mother a couple of times to discuss this matter of grave importance with her, only to be sent back to the front with reassured patience. Since I ran a couple times, Father, who was still in the beginning of his sermon, though he was 15 minutes into it, got distracted and gave me the evil eye as I sat back down disappointed a second time. But, for the sake of my princess dress, I ran to my mother a third time. This time, she obliged; took me out of the tent.
As we looked around in the dark for a place to relieve ourselves, all we could see were cars parked along the street in the distance. There seemed to be some hushed conversations around the cars. People seemed to emerge from behind the cars, walking back in two’s and three’s towards the tent. Maa asked one of them for directions to any toilets around. The helpful people directed us towards the cars. Maa realized there was no permanent structure around. We crossed the gate-like opening on the barbed wire fence towards the cars lined up along the length of the fence. As we hopped over little streams of water flowing across the gate and walked towards the far end of the line of cars, I understood what Maa was looking for - a dark, lonely spot. We choose the one between cars 10 and 11 at the far end of the queue of nearly 50 cars. This was far away from the tent and, yet, hadn’t crossed over the borders of the open ground on which the tent stood. That meant the residential houses were a good 100 meters away on one side. Two sides would be covered with cars, leaving a fourth side open. Maa could stand there and voila! My toilet!
Shrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! You get the drift.
Shreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! What’s that sound, I wondered?
Ziiiiiiiiiip! Another one.
Giggles and laughter from some people passing by.
Trickle, Trickle! A stream of something flowing beside me.
Father’s muffled voice on the mic in the distance; the only noises that could be heard this late in the dark.
When I stood, wrapped up and emerged on the street dusting down my princess dress, I wasn’t alone. Ah! Nicole was here too, the car beside mine. We walked forward, and Kevin joined us. A little further, and Vicky emerged. And, we all wished each other a Merry Christmas, giggled, gossiped, wondered whether the sermon was over and walked back happily with our hands in our pockets, blowing in the cold, still humming the last hymn that the choir sang.
30 years have gone by, we have all gone our separate ways in different corners of the world. Yet, whenever we bump into each other, the smile in our eyes gives away the most embarrassing memories we have of each other. Memories that refuse to fade away.
Back inside the tent, we would sit close to the aisle, so we could touch the shimmery dresses and shiny stilettos that passed by on their way to receive communion. We would wait for crumbs of the host to drop down, so we could peck the sticky crumb of wheat flake with our tiny fingers and taste it. But, I could never figure out what it tasted like, till I actually received it during my First Holy Communion ceremony and realized it had no taste, just a slightly sticky, thin, tasteless wafer.
The midnight mass ended with our run for cake and coffee right outside the tent. Though as a child I didn’t like plum cake but that night in the open the different flavours of the cake, contributed by various households, tasted awesome. Hugging and wishing family and friends, I was the happiest. Someone would burst a cracker or so, which would soar up in the sky and burst open into a shower of fire droplets in orange, green and red.
At home, we ate cake, sang carols, looked at gifts we had already opened long back and were tucked in bed. 25th was spent eating the lavish spread of meats, starting from breakfast right through till lunch, when we would all be so full we would only need soup for dinner. Nevertheless at dinner, Maa would make her special cutlets and our friends would come over to wish. Meanwhile, my sister and I would be sent to neighbours’ houses with small packages containing loaves of cake and Maa’s Christmas snacks. In return, we would get chocolates.
Though, the Christmas of my childhood has changed, my kids don’t go to my neighbours with plates of cake and snacks. Instead, there’s a Christmas carnival in our apartment these days where we all buy cake and eat it together. No colorful cards come by post, we now get SMSs wishing us on Christmas. Our church is a permanent building now, no tent and no freezing outdoors. Carol singers don’t come by the house anymore, it’s now an evening of carols at some community centre where all parishioners gather. But the spirit of Christmas remains and will always exist. My children will make a memory of the spirit, joy and love that fills their hearts, and they will have their own memories. Some day, I will read the writings on their walls (Facebook wall or whatever technology there is in the future)...the strokes that made their Christmas!

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© 2015 by Donna Abraham


  1. A nice little story that evokes just the right emotions of a time gone by, but bringing the same warm memories of Christmas.

  2. Ah! Thanks Ashima...was hoping to pull out some humour from the past.

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  4. Glad to have brought some Christmas cheer!

  5. Wow..I could picturize the whole story. Woven so lovely..

  6. Wow..I could picturize the whole story. Woven so lovely..

  7. So so beautiful!! Loved reading <3