In quest of Christmas

SPIRIT OF THE SEASON

In quest of Christmas

Yuletide is in. The Christmas spirit has begun to infuse the air in India’s southern-most state. Illuminated shop fronts and brightly decorated malls are designed to entice the consumerist Malayali, even in this time of meltdowns.

In Kerala, people do not generally identify celebrations with any particular religion, and participate together in the spirit of the season. However, for the Christians in the state, the festival is certainly a very special time. With stars twinkling from their balconies and roof tops, Christians — whether they are Catholics or Protestants, Latins or Syrians, Jacobites or Marthomites — are on a festive high.

Tinsel, tree and treats
Old timers recall their childhood, the thrill of school vacations coinciding with Christmas celebrations and their forays into fields and forests to collect grass to decorate home-made cribs and Christmas trees.

“Of course, all that is in the past now. Today, Christmas comes readymade, although the Christmas spirit thankfully is still warm and fresh and all-pervasive,” observes Fr. Paul Thelekkkat, a spokesperson for the Syrian Catholic Church.
Christmas means the yearly outing of tinselly Christmas decorations that economy-conscious housewives had carefully stashed away through the long, dusty summer. It is the children in the family who are the most enthusiastic about making the crib, hanging up the buntings and decorating the tree.

 Every family has it own version of the crib. The whole idea is to recreate for the viewer the scene described in the Gospel of Mathew, according to which the three wise men from the East came to the Christ child, guided by a star.

The crib is meant to be seen as a symbol of humility, a reminder to the faithful that Jesus was born in a manger. In an earlier day, the crib was made of grass, which children used to collect from the fields around, or make do with wood shavings procured from a local carpenter. The pride of place is, of course, always given to the Christ child. Figurines of the Holy Mother, Joseph and the angels are placed alongside and a star is hung above it all to recall the original ‘star of wonder’.

The more painstaking even grow their own paddy and plant it around the crib, combining it rather incongruously with layers of cotton for a snowy illusion to mimic western depictions of the nativity. While the entire crib can be bought off a shop shelf now, attempts are still made to retain the creativity of yore with churches even holding their own crib-decorating competitions.

But it is the Christmas tree that is the cynosure of all eyes. Today, reusable trees — made of wire and tinsel or green plastic —  have captured the markets and the consumer’s fancy. But a quarter of a century ago, things were quite different. Recalls Nina Joseph (55), a resident of Ernakulam, “In my childhood, we used to go into the nearby forest and cut down a young tree and carry it home for the decorations. Now, we buy it from a shop.” But the decorations often have to be crafted at home and are heavily inspired by the western Christmas.

In the run up to the festival, mothers, aunts and grandmothers sit around the dining table helping the younger lot to fashion strips of golden and silver paper into loops. The loops are then linked together to make long paper chains that are then used to festoon the main rooms of the home, starting with the entrance to the home.

The best among the many stars that are crafted is chosen to delicately adorn the top of the tree, even as the branches are lit up with strings of flickering neon lights, coloured glass balls, balloons, masks of Santa Claus, small silver or golden paper stars, Christmas cards, and bells. For the women of the household the fun times and festivities invariably come with a lot of hard work. Cooking up mountains of holiday fare is not for the faint-hearted. Traditional Christmas snacks specific to Christian menus like achappams (also known as rose cookies), kuzhalappams (a crispy tubular shaped savoury) and the rice halwa (traditional sweet) made with rice and coconut milk and laced with cashew nuts are extremely arduous to make. Although, they too can be bought off the shelf today, many women opt to labour energetically over the fire for hours on end to put stacks of homemade goodies on the table.

Food fiesta
Then, of course, there is the traditional Christmas breakfast and lunch, which follow the midnight mass to mark Christmas eve — the holy ritual of the night before. “While most of the family come back from the midnight mass and slip into bed, the women often have to make sure they are up bright and early to prepare the traditional breakfast,” says Molly Jolly (59). Breakfast in most households is appam and meat stews. Incidentally, this combo now figures even on international tourist menus with Kerala considered the best breakfast destination in the world, according to National Geographic.

Finally, the big day dawns and everybody gathers around a groaning breakfast table. The family cuts the cake and shares a slice as a symbol of family bonding. Home is still the centre of Christmas celebrations.

By the time the presents have been opened and the house happily strewn with wrapping paper and buntings, and the elders have recounted old family tales, it is nearing 1 pm and the house is redolent with the spicy aromas of meat curries and the freshly cooked mountains of red parboiled rice. The main meal always ends with a payasam (rice pudding) full of plump raisins and nuts.

Once everything has been duly savoured and the cooks complimented for their culinary talent, it’s time for a quick snooze or a visit to a friend’s home, depending on one’s age and inclination.

The years have brought many changes. Today, there are many well-heeled Christian families who choose to celebrate Christmas by jetting off to Pattaya or dining at a local club, rather than having to cope with an army of visitors at home.

But by and large old Christmas traditions in Kerala are alive and well. The festival continues to be a time of caring and sharing, a time to celebrate the spirit of peace and goodwill to all.

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