Christmas past and present

I am dreaming of a merry Christmas! A Christmas with all its trimmings and the joyous moments. The family will be together. There will be presents, sharing, and remembering the less fortunate.

Thinking of Christmas makes me ponder over the true meaning of the occasion. Whether in my new home in Canada or back in my native India, the meaning is love. The emotion that makes us happy, which gives us the strength to carry on even in the face of adversities. It generates faith in ourselves and makes us selfless.

My Christmas dream doesn’t have big, expensive packages tied with gold ribbons, but only small ones with red ribbons around them. I believe gifts are symbolic; I don’t have to compete with anyone in my giving. It’s about the gesture of caring.

And there will be a Christmas tree, decorated with candy canes representing the good shepherd’s staff, and the miniature, gift-wrapped presents hanging from its branches. The evergreen tree itself represents eternal life.

There will be Christmas carollers reminding us of the angels who sang on Christmas night, string lights, holly berries, a nativity scene at the bottom of the tree, Christmas wreath and bells, and at the top of the tree, a silver star representing the star of Bethlehem. And we will share a home-cooked meal with family and friends.

During my earlier visits to Halifax, I remember how splendid the malls used to look with their huge Christmas trees and shiny decorations. Christmas music was played and the air was filled with anticipation and excitement.

Decorations started showing up from September itself and I used to love going around the mall and taking in all the joy and wonder Christmas brought.

People all over the world celebrate Christmas. Back home in Kerala, India, we celebrate all Christian festivals, especially Christmas.

Christianity is India’s third-largest religion after Hinduism and Islam, with approximately 28 million followers, constituting 2.3% of India’s population. Of these, 6.141 million live in my home state of Kerala. Keralites boast to be the earliest Christians in India, accepting Christianity inspired by the Apostle St. Thomas himself. History tells us that St. Thomas came to India in 52 AD. He was supposed to have arrived in or around the place called Maliankara and founded churches in Kerala.

Preparations for Christmas start weeks ahead. Churches, streets, and homes are decorated. Every home used to have a nativity scene in a small thatched hut. Stars, made of bamboo strips and multi-coloured tissue paper, and lit by electric light bulbs, were very popular.

I remember as a young girl, spending hours with my dad, siblings, and cousins making stars of different sizes. Cutting and shaping bamboo strips and tying them with thin wire to form the framework for stars seemed like really big projects. And it was fun! I miss those happy, creative moments.

I also remember that shopping for new clothes was a family event and was done weeks ahead of Christmas. I used to marvel at the multiple stacks of soft shimmering silk saris and dress materials in the shops and was fascinated by their myriad hues. Contrary to today’s ready-made dresses, almost all the clothes for the family were stitched by our family tailor. What luxury!

Attending midnight service was mandatory for the whole family. We all looked forward to it, although some of the little people fell asleep during the mass.

The church would be fully decorated with lights, streamers, lanterns, and a nativity scene with statues of Joseph and Mary, animals, and a manger waiting for the arrival of baby Jesus. At the stroke of midnight, the parish priest, accompanied by his entourage, would carry the statue of baby Jesus and place it in the manger.

The lights, decorations and the smell of incense created a magical world. During the service, the church would reverberate with the joyous singing of the choir and the congregation, and it felt wonderfully happy and spiritual. Even today, I can hear that music every time I think of Christmas.

After the midnight service, we returned home to a big feast. Of all the sweets and savories, my favorite was the halwa made with rice flour and thick coconut milk. Then there were achappams, cheeppappams, sugar coated plantain chips, murukku, cakes and pastries bought from neighbourhood bakery, and orappam baked at home in a shallow clay pot with wood fire under the pot and hot coal on its metal lid.

What I remember most is that the sweets and savouries made by my mother, and stored in large airtight tins lined with paper, lasted a long time, and we used to enjoy them for weeks or even months after Christmas.

It feels good thinking about Christmas at home in India. And I am looking forward to celebrating it in my new home in Halifax. Here it may be a white Christmas, unlike it is back home.

As the silently falling snowflakes transform the ordinary world into a fairyland, my heart will joyously sing songs of gratitude for all the blessings I have received. And I want the spirit of Christmas to last all through the year and bring peace to us and the world.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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