As a percentage, Christians account for just 2% of India’s population, however, when I look back, Christmas seemed to be celebrated more widely than the numbers would suggest. Perhaps the fact that I studied at Jesuit schools and had a lot of Christian friends leads me to this conclusion. My primary school (up to 3rd grade) was on a January to January calendar year, so our big vacation started sometime around the first week of December and extended well into January. The first few days of December, leading up to Christmas would find us doing a lot of art and craftwork involving Christmas trees, snowmen and Santa Claus. Just before school closed for the annual break, one of the Anglo-Indian teachers would dress up as Santa Claus replete with a snow-white beard and pay a visit to each classroom. I don’t remember if we were handed out candy but given the sense of anticipation that we looked forward to the visit, I assume that we did.
My first (of very few) academic prize was shockingly for Math when I was in first grade. The prize was a beautiful hardbound edition of the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. I don’t remember the publisher but I reckon the dog-eared copy is still lying somewhere at home in Bangalore. Needless to say, I was thrilled and read the book cover to cover several times. The illustrations were beautiful, the snow captured my imagination. The same month, we had a family reunion in Goa. We happened to be there during Christmas and paid a visit to the Basilica of Bom Jesus that contains the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier. I remember the lit houses and the general sense of celebration in the air. I digress though. That book shaped my image of how Christmas was celebrated in the West. Moonlit vistas of sleepy, snowy towns with fir trees, icicles dangling from the eaves of cottages, smoke curling out of chimneys and Santa riding across the horizon with his retinue of reindeer, his sleigh overflowing with presents.
As far as I am concerned, the main attraction of festivals is the accompanying food and in this case, it meant the Christmas day visit to a family friend’s house. Judy aunty lived close by and we would visit her house around 6 pm. There would be sponge cakes, kidyos (mini elongated donuts is the closest I can describe them), fruit cake, cookies and marzipan amongst a host of other delicacies. The main attraction though was a small glass of homemade port wine! I guess as a young boy, imbibing the forbidden drink with official sanction from my parents was a big deal! My mother did learn to make port wine from Judy aunty but after the first batch, she decided that she was raising a family of alcoholics and stopped making the wine much to our chagrin.
Another Christmas tradition was a visit to Nilgiris on Brigade Road. They would have a cake exhibition that featured gigantic cakes baked and decorated in the shapes of planes, ships, famous buildings, comic characters and so on. These cakes would weigh hundreds of pounds! Of course, the trip was not complete until I had a chicken puff, cake and some rosemilk on my way out! I also remember a trip to Bombay when I was in 6th grade. My uncle was a much loved and respected doctor and some of his patients would bring over plum and fruit cakes for Christmas. I remember sitting at the dining table at my uncle’s home in Shivaji Park and my aunt placing a veritable smorgasbord of cakes for me to sample. I was in absolute cake heaven!
Studying in a Jesuit school meant that my Christmas break was much longer than that of my friends from non-Jesuit schools who would get a day off during Christmas I remember reading a bunch of books, some of which would be checked out from the British Council library. Gerald Durrell and Billy Bunter were favorites. You knew it was December when Chandamama would feature a story relating to Christmas. Chandamama was a popular magazine that featured a lot of stories from Hindu mythology. In fact, most of their covers had illustrations from one of the myriad tales that abound in Hindu lore. However, December would find the magazine featuring a story relating to Christianity. It was in a Chandamama that I read the story of St Boniface and the significance of the Christmas tree. I also remember reading the story of the exorcism of a possessed man by Christ, the spirits after leaving the man’s body, possessed some pigs who leaped to their death off a cliff into a lake. Even though we did not celebrate Christmas at home, it was a good excuse for me to either buy some cake at a bakery or convince my mother to bake one at home!
Christmas in the US is a colorful affair. Santas and snowmen on lawns in South Florida looked a bit incongruous but definitely ushered in the Christmas spirit. Getting into the Christmas spirit also meant heading to the mall to look for deals. When our daughter turned five, we decided to keep a Christmas tree at home. Part of the fun of growing up in India was to be able to go to school and discuss with friends the firecrackers that I was going to light for Diwali or the sweets that I was going to feast on. There was a shared sense of anticipation and community. We did not want our daughter to feel left out. She was more than happy to help us decorate the tree and draw up wish lists for Santa. She would come back from her school with handmade Christmas ornaments that she would proudly hang on the tree. We continued the tradition for a few years but the challenge of keeping our son away from the tree and the delicate ornaments was quite daunting. By then, our daughter had figured out that a Christmas tree was a not a requirement to receive gifts, so she was not too distressed when we stopped putting up the tree at home.
The last few years have seen us celebrate Christmas with my sister-in-law’s family in New Jersey. They put up a tree with gifts for everyone. There is delicious food and the evenings are mellow with great company and wine. It is nice to wind down the year by kicking back and spending time with family and enjoying some free time before another year starts. This has become a family tradition that we look forward to now. As I write this, there are fir trees outside my window and shrubs of holly. Smoke curls out of chimneys and there is snow everywhere. The illustrations in the book that so captivated my imagination more than 40 years ago, were not too far off. Santa would not fit through my chimney though, he would probably just have to knock on my front door!