Ours is a big, fat, full-on family. With marriages and births occuring every year, I’ve lost count of the total number of family members we have right now. Interestingly however, with the increasing number of members, the head count for Christmas has dwindled over the years. This is mostly because the youngies have made other states their home due to professional commitments.
But when we were young, very young rather, Christmas was a different story. The countdown, the kaboom and the aftermath were something we used to wait for – year long. And it used to start somewhere in the first week of December.
Date with fruits and nuts: Annual exams over, we knew it was time to go for purchase of dry fruits and nuts for the Christmas Cake. But before that there was this ‘list-making’ by my grandpa. Meticulous that he was, he made and re-made the list till evryone finalized the list. So, armed with the list, off we would go to the dry fruit shops. I loved the way we were made to feel all important by the shop-keepers. “ A seat for the baby”, one of them would shout. Goggle eyed we would stare at the wide variety of mixes, peels and nuts on offer. Every once in a while they would let us ‘taste and buy’ the items. A scoop of crunchy nuts would be temptingly placed in our vicinity. One or hardly two of them would find their way to the elders’ mouth, while our aim would be to grab in as much as possible within our little palms. Grab and gobble was the general motto. Never mind if the tangy riasins refused to merge with the blob of cashew and mixed peel mish-mash already fighting their destiny with the tongue! And this would continue till a more-than-hard nudge by mother would put an end to this shameless grab and gobble policy.
The act of Cutting, Drying and Disappearing : The next process was labourious- cutting the fruits into minute bits and sun-drying them. The cutting part was always Grandma’s department. Our work was to put them out in the sun, placing on plates, under a mosquito net.
The fruit peels, raisins, nuts came with a warning. “Remember, these are for the cakes– THE cakes – THE Christmas Cakes and it is a sin to eat even one bit”. But as they say, every ban, every warning comes with the unwritten rule that it would be ignored. So, in the guise of a replacement for the scare-crow, we wouldn’t hesitate transfering a raisin here, a cut fruit there into the dark hole of our lust…Not that our conscience showed the green signal but then, who has ever ignored the call of greed !
Birthday Big Bang: The official ribbon-cutting would however be on the 19th of December – my father’s birthday. A grand feast would mark the get-set-go to the Christmas festivities. My aunts would arrive and so would my cousins. And being the only brother of his sisters, my father would be spoilt rich with the wide variety of food on offer.
My father was born with just 6 days to go for Christmas. Normally, it is a custom for the new mothers not to appear in public functions before the 21st day from delivery. But my grandma being grandma – the quirky and unconventional, managed to anger and surprise her whole clan by landing at the Christmas Service with her six day old son! From then on, my Dad became the unofficial Christmas Mascot for the entire family!
The Bake Cake Day: 20th of December was our official Baking Day! My aunts would arrive early in the morning with their share of dried fruits, nuts, flour, eggs, butter. Considering the large number of cakes to be baked, the actual baking would take place in one of the bakeries in a place called – Bake Bagan!
While the cakes browned themselves in the large ovens at the bakery, my aunts sat in the courtayard with their back to the sun – drying their hair and giggling in mirth, recalling their own childhood christmas tales. My mother in the meanwhile would prepare mounds of Rice and Dal and a simple fish-curry for all.But all the while we would wait for the cakes to arrive from the bakery.
The cakes would arrive in the evening – brown, hot and wet with molten butter. Their aroma would drive us crazy but they were not to be touched.
Ramp Ready: My youngest aunt was the quirkiest of the lot. She was mad, enterprising, moody and our official fashion designer cum make-up artist. It was strange but true, that all of us – irrespective of our gender – had to wear the same fabric! Somewhere in the beginning of December my aunt would arrive with a roll of fabric – having strange names – ‘chinese silk’, ‘disco chiffon’, ‘hawaian velvet’. And then she would ensure that each of us got to have a piece each for stitching our christmas dresses. So, somewhere around 22nd or 23rd would be our dress trial day. The tailor would be nervous about the outcome of having to stitch dresses ranging from shirts to frocks to maxi dresses. And invariably, the conclusion would be a stiff warning to the tailor to improve his craft within another year!
This would be followed by a hair cut session. And for a change I would be spared of a hair cut by the local barber. My aunt would take us to a parlour for our hair-cut. Step-cut, Blunt-cut, U, Deep-U…the parlour girl would blurt out her list. Having been baptised in hair oil throughout the year, my hair would be a limp mass of hair which the parlour girl would refuse to cut untill a proper shampoo was done. A wash and a cut later I would come back home in a glorious form…only to be reprimanded by grandma, “ What have you done to your hair? You look strange!”.
Christmas Eve: One church and fourteen children….I don’t know how Jesus Christ managed the cacophony – but he did – with a smile on his lips for all the years till we grew up! Off and on, about fourteen of us huddled together to decorate our little church on Christmas Eve. The older ones did the basic planning but we were allowed to put in our inputs as well. We were not supposed to sing film songs but our sisters managed to do some whispers about semi-shaved and hairy-chest heroes in between selecting the roses. Not that we never fought. But the in-between peep-ins by our elders, restrained the level of fights.
Once the decoration was over, it was time for us to rush back home to have our first taste of Christmas Cake.
‘Not more than one or two pieces!Dinner is ready and if you stuff yourselves with cakes, you’ll waste dinner”, our grandma would warn. But what was dinner in front of piles of yellow-brown, rich, buttery Christmas Cake?
Dinner would add to the winter shiver and chattering our teeth we would rush to the bedrooms to cozy ourselves under the quilts. Six of us under one quilt would invariably mean little spurts of giggle and gossip every now and then. The eldest among us, our sister, would keep on warning us, “Guys, better go to sleep early. Otherwise we won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s church service”. Silence would prevail. For five to six seconds. This would be followed by another spell of loud laughter. Ripples of laughter would echo through the room till the sleep fairies would kiss our eye lids.
The Day: Unlike other days, we would never require pushing and prodding on Christmas Day. One small tap on our forehead and we would sit up on our bed. And our hands would automatically slide under our pillows. Fat belly dolls, Doctor Set, 7-in-1 Indoor Games, Cookery set, Bat-ball set…year after year, Santa satisfied our wants that we scribbled on little notes and left with our parents ‘to post’.
But before we could savour the fun of the gifts a voice would howl, “Just how long would you all take?”. Grandma’s voice was our signal to rush downstaris. Mother would provide a never ending supply of warm water from her boiling pot. A hurried breakfast would follow. And this ‘hurried breakfast’ would actually mean umpteen slices of Christmas Cake. While the others would sign off with two or three slices, my cousin brother and I would compete with each other in stuffing ourselves like a Christmas Turkey.
The Chruch Bell would be a cue for us to wind up our dressing sessions in front of a single mirror.
The way to Church was always a special one – those little moments of rediscovering each other.
“Gosh! You look so gorgeous!”
“Wow! This dress looks lovely on you!”
“Just turn around…let me see your hairstyle”
The chill and the morning shiver, the little wisps of vapour coming out of our mouth, as we spoke….all added to that special ‘Christmasy feeling’.
Inside the church, we children, occupied two side rows. While the priest delivered his sermon we made clutch purses, lotus and japanese fan with our hankies. But we never failed to lend our loudest voice to the hymns:
“Hark the herald angels sing; Glory to the new born king!”
Once the service was over, our ‘work’ was to touch the feet of the elders and seek their blessings.
The blessings came in variety – from placing hand on our heads to kissing our forehead to kissing our cheeks. And by the time the ‘ bless me’ was over, our cheeks and forehead would be dotted with lipstick marks in various shades!
The rest of the day would pass in a daze…….handing out packets of goodies to the poor people who came to our door-step, sessions and sessions of coffee and cakes and laughter, not to forget the change of dresses in between!
But two of the major highlights would be the Gala Family Lunch and the Great Christmas Sports.
The lunch was a ‘gala’ one indeed with near about hundred family members sharing lunch together. Food and gossips went hand in hand, as we, children, continued to bathe in dust and sunshine in equal measures.
Around 3 ‘O Clock would start the Christmas Sports. Children would come teeming from far and wide – mostly from the nearby slum areas. The events included many fun events – biting off a Jalebi tied to a rope and running to the finishing line, three-legged race, go-as-you-like, bursting a pot with closed eyes…..The gifts were equally amusing – from coins to whistles to ill-shaped plastic balls!
By the end of the day, our legs would ache and we would barely be able to keep our eyes open! But we would rather not sleep…..we would never, ever want Christmas to get over!
And the merriment continued….And no, our Christmas won’t be over! 26Th– Boxing Day’ – would be our ‘Official Zoo visit Day’! Not that we were too eager to wish the animals for Christmas, but it had come to become a part of our family tradition – a sort of family picnic! So much so, that we had one new dress earmarked as ‘zoo dress’! Sessions of badminton, popping in juicy oranges, sticking out our tongues to the Orangutang, disturbing the lazy winter afternoon sleep of the Tigers, struggling with the sliding chocolate sheets of the Chocobar ice-creams…these were all part of our ‘Zoo Fiesta’!
And hold on, this was not the end of Christmas celebrations…..we found out and invented several events that would let our celebrations linger on till the New Year! A day of marathon movies, a special get-together at an aunt’s place and then at another’s…..our celebrations would never seem to come to an end!!!
The grand finale to the celebrations would however not be that happy – a red-nose there, a sore throat here, a bout of diarreah somewhere….But the spirit of the Christmas-Happy gang was never-ending!