The expression is one of eternal surprise...perhaps her own, at having survived this long. Every year, as I lift her gently out of her box, my heart fills with warm memories of Christmases long ago.
They were simple, homespun Christmases, prepared for with joy and celebrated with deep contentment. Almost immediately after the holidays began, our parents would call in the painters and we kids would have a blast for three mad days of chaos amid cans of whitewash and stacked furniture, running up and down ladders, helping to scrub the whitewash off floors and doors and inhaling great lungfuls of the smell of new paint as our little old house got her annual makeover.
Then the glorious day earmarked for Christmas shopping would arrive, and we would set off early, doing the round of shops for toys and shoes and curtains and clothes, our mum working miracles from out of a very slender wallet. Lunch at the ‘Kohinoor’ was the high point of the day, with plates of hot chicken biryani, topped by a nice, fat boiled egg. We would trudge home with our parcels, exhausted and elated, already anticipating the next stage of preparations for the big day.
Mum would begin cutting and sewing my Christmas dress, and I would watch, as her clever, nimble fingers fashioned lovely fairy frocks out of simple nylon and lace. Nothing matched the thrill of seeing it pressed and hung, ready to be worn on Christmas morning. Every day, I would sneak my shoes out of the closet to take a little peep at them, nestling in tissue, the shiny leather smelling clean and new.
Then, our indefatigable mum would get down to the sweet making, and the house would be filled with the fragrance of toffee boiling thickly on one kerosene stove while rose cookies and kul kuls got fried a golden brown on the other. Dad would be hard at work, doing what he did best, polishing the furniture, decorating the living room, and dressing the Christmas tree. Our little gold foil angel would find pride of place on the top of the sweet smelling cypress switch that dad had nurtured all year long in a pot in the backyard.
And then, at last, it would be Christmas Day. The new dress and shoes could finally be worn, and the celebrations could begin...but not before we went to Church. At Mass, the deep resonance of the bells and the full singing of the choir, the silence of the worshipping congregation, the fragrant incense and the pure white vestments of the priests all combined to create a special sense of sanctity and grace.
And then, after Mass, came the visit to the Crib. The sweet scent of the wild rushes used to construct the manger scene is one I treasure. It is one that moves me to tears, even to this day, as I recall being lifted in my father’s arms, to gaze on the Baby smiling up from the hay, while Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and stable creatures gaze down at Him in adoration.
I hang the little angel on my Christmas tree. And as the fairy lights begin to glow warm and clear among the deep green boughs, the clutter of the busy year gone by is swept away and a clean, small place is readied in my heart. A small, still space, warmed by wonderful memories of family Christmases of long ago, scented by the fragrance of wild rushes, and lit by the look in a Baby’s smiling eyes.