As we entered our house, we were greeted with a cup of tepid tea sweetened with jaggery (vellam in Tamil). More relatives arrived later either on foot or on cycle. After tea, my uncle brought down the family nativity crib set from the attic. He would carefully unwrap the various enactors and lay them out on the manger. We watched wide-eyed as the Christmas story came alive all over again.
Freshly sprouted mustard saplings completed the decorations. As we stood watching, my grandmother narrated the story of Bethlehem, with her characteristic intonations. We listened in awe, as if we heard the story for the first time. Later, our grandfather would arrive from the fields. A man of few words, he smiled at us all and gave us each a rupee. That was his Christmas gift.
It was time to get dressed for the church. I and my three brothers wore identical trousers and shirts. The fresh-smelling garments were stitched the previous day by the village tailor, from cloth that our father bought from the town. The women of the house were dressed in new nylon saris. The midnight church service was long and the sermon monotonous. I could almost recite the entire sermon. The children and some adults slept through the entire routine.
We found ourselves waking up early morning to the sound of children bursting crackers saved up from the last Diwali. Breakfast was quick, with upma made to feed large numbers.
There were no traditional carols to sing. The village youth had written lyrics on Christmas, set to tunes from recent movie hits. They went around the village, singing their bhajans. The group often paused when it reached our house and came in for a glass of soda colour. It left after singing a special 'blessing' for the family. Soon, the village postman arrived, sporting a meaningful smile, as he delivered mail even on a holiday!
The aroma of lunch made us hungry by now. We sat on the floor and the women served food on "eversilver" plates — first to the children and then the men. The lunch consisted of plain rice and goat kulambu. As lunch time neared, some distant relatives had casually dropped by. They would be invited for the meal. After some customary remonstration, they would eventually join us. The look on the women's faces betrayed apprehension. Sensing this, my grandmother discretely lit the firewood stove and started boiling water to make more rice. Eventually, everyone was fed with some ingenuity on part of the ladies. Lunch was rounded off with a ladle of payasam.
We couldn't wait to taste the Christmas cake. Every year, a family friend presented us with a fruitcake from the town bakery, which we brought with us. The cake would be the perfect size for a family of six, but for a house full of relatives a tad small. My mother had a knack of making thin slices. They became even thinner with every slice. We all ate our share, devouring each tiny morsel of the rare treat. The children fought over the pink rose on the icing.
Music from the loudspeakers turned to film hits by now. Soon, the annual sports meet was "declared open." We watched and cheered the participants while nibbling savouries my mom had prepared. Some men huddled into discreet corners and passed around a bottle or two. They seemed happier and louder as they emerged from their huddle. Gradually, the buzz would settle. As the evening wore off, the people retired tired, but content.
A few decades have now rolled on. I am now far removed from the village. As I watch through my window the snow-covered streets and trees, homes glisten with festive lights.
There is much pomp and hype, but Christmas seems to have turned somewhat dreary. Back in the village, there was none of the 'traditional' Christmas fanfare. There was no Santa, no Christmas tree with presents underneath. Yet there was genuine sharing. Peace did seem to descend on the village, on its own terms.
I yearn for the Christmas that was.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor of Paediatrics, University of Northern British Columbia, Canada.)