Christmases of yore

The festival brought with it a warm feeling of togetherness and pervasive spirit of amity.

Perhaps, no childhood memories are more durable and pleasurable than those relating to Christmas — they somehow remain fresh and indelibly etched in our minds. In the 1950s, we invariably spent Christmas in the verdant tea estate where Dad worked. It was tucked away among the mist-capped and forested hills of Munnar, now one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations.

In those halcyon days, the onset of winter in Munnar was usually heralded by a sharp nip in the air and the stream gurgling contentedly nearby would turn icy-cold — something that global warming appears to have dispelled for good now. Mothballed pullovers, cardigans and balaclavas would be taken out of hibernation and dusted off, while at night a log fire would crackle crisply in the sitting room hearth with the family huddled around it, discussing the day’s events.

A month in advance, fresh grapes would be purchased to be fermented into wine, and one of our older roosters would be put on ‘death-row’ to be fattened up for the Xmas luncheon. Mum would busy herself preparing a variety of snacks and savouries to be proudly dished out when friends and relatives came calling — and which we ever-hungry children could plunder with impunity thanks to the festive season.

As Xmas approached, temperatures would plunge. Despite lips and cheeks painfully chapped by the freezing cold, we loved to wipe the condensation off the window panes early in the morning in order to peer out at the grass magically carpeted white with frost.
The day before the festival, we children would scour the hillside behind our home for a suitable pine for the Xmas tree. It would be stealthily felled and dragged home after dusk – to avoid detection by the stern British estate manager, an ardent tree-lover. Once, however, the trail we left in the dusty dirt-track gave us away – and came pretty close to wrecking our celebrations!

Swathed in layers of warm clothing, the carollers would arrive late in the night like spectres emerging out of the dense mist, their way lighted by a hissing petromax. Vapour would drift from their mouths as they sang with gusto through frost-bitten lips while the kids huddled bleary-eyed in the doorway, having been dragged out of bed.

On Christmas eve, we never forgot to hang up near our beds the most capacious stockings we could find – the fact that we had somehow cracked the mystery of who was filling them up with toys and gifts never detracted one whit from our sense of keen anticipation!

Having attended the midnight mass and returned half-asleep, on Christmas morning we would snuggle deeper into our blankets as the heart-warming strains of “O come, all ye faithful” in Jim Reeves’ inimitable baritone wafted into the bedroom over Radio Ceylon along with the aroma of steaming dumpling stew. What a stirring wake-up call!

Christmas, then, was truly a time of peace and goodwill. It brought with it a warm feeling of familial togetherness and camaraderie where all differences were shelved and snapped ties restored in a pervasive spirit of amity. Does it still do so – or merely herald a short-lived truce?

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