My earliest memories of celebrating Christmas are from when I was 6 or 7 years old. We were in a small town called Naya Nangal in the Punjab, where my father worked for the (then) Fertilizer Corporation of India (which subsequently became National Fertilizer Ltd.) It was a mini-township with a population of perhaps over 10,000 comprising of 3,000 employees and their family members, plus workers from ancillary industries and other service providers. The place was not just a microcosm of India, it was also home to several expatriate families of officers representing Japanese, Italian and French engineering companies providing turnkey services.
I had a close-knit group of friends – VA belonged to a Christian family from Kerala, VR was from Mysore, BG was a Bengali from Calcutta (now Kolkata), RO came from Pune in Maharashtra, PV belonged to Rajasthan and NT was a typical Punjabi. We had all seen the movie The Three Musketeers at the local Officers’ Club and smitten by their motto of “One for all and all for one” had turned it into our rallying cry. Messages scribbled with soap or “secret ink” on note paper were delivered surreptitiously to each other at school. By wetting the paper, we were able to decipher the time and venue of our secret rendezvous after school. PV and BG’s sisters were tolerated but never included as “members” of our special group.
Each friend’s family culture, different foods, religious beliefs and customs might have been noticed but never questioned, and were readily accepted. In particular, I recall that VA’s mother would often send over their leftover food items for overnight storage in our fridge as they did not then own a refrigerator. She used to cook a delicious dish of roe when the seasonal fish eggs were available and would send a separate bowl of fried roe specially for my father and me. My paternal grandmother who lived with us, would always fuss. She resented “their” food which she considered “smelly and impure” being stored alongside “our” food. To her credit however, with the passage of time she mellowed and told us eventually, to discontinue all rituals and religious observations that she had adhered to all her life. For instance, she stopped fasting on “auspicious” days of the week, and discontinued dietary and religious practices over ten days of “navratas” that culminated with “Ashtami Pooja/kanjaks” when neighborhood girls would be invited home for a ritualistic meal. Her view was quite simply that more than rituals it was respect for others that we must hold to a higher standard in our hearts. Diwali, Gurpurab, Eid or Christmas were all the same to her. At the time of announcing this change, she was perhaps over 60 years old; an illiterate woman who had only ever been exposed to and spent her entire life unquestioningly following very strong traditional, patriarchal society values. She lived on for another 40 or so years to the ripe old age of 99 or 100!
Just before Christmas, VA’s sister and parents would come over to exchange seasonal greetings; I looked forward to the visit because they would always bring their special Christmas cake. Legend had it that VA’s mum would start the preparations a year in advance and her cake could last years without spoiling, because of the high levels of alcohol in which currants, raisins and other fruit were soaked. My grandmother, a strict vegetarian who never ate eggs and to whom the very thought of consuming alcohol, even by her own son was anathema, would happily partake of a minuscule portion of the Christmas cake to celebrate the “vadehra din” (the Big Day)! Mrs. A would invariably be moved to tears on such occasions.
The “A” family cake was also delivered to other families, who would in turn, send small trays of their own traditional home-cooked goodies, covered with lace dollies to all of us. This was one ritual which was loved by all and continued while we remained in Nangal, not just to celebrate Christmas but just about everything and no excuses were needed.
It is therefore difficult for someone like me to understand how and why food, culture and even dress can now divide peoples? On the one hand, we wish to celebrate diversity, but on the other, are increasingly becoming intolerant of others.
There is however, a palpable feeling of caring that can be experienced at this special time of the year. Notwithstanding the increasing consumerism and need for instant personal gratification, this is the season which also causes people to rise to the occasion and help those that are less fortunate or needy. Neighborhood lawns sport placards encouraging people to “Keep Christ in Christmas”.
Also, a large number of “Feel good” stories start to appear in social media channels; even LinkedIn has carried posts by some CEO or another on how, during an incredibly hectic workday she happened to notice a homeless woman and gave her some money for food; this turned into a “perspective walk” for the donor and helped her gain new insights into the power of helping those in need! Even if a tad patronizing, the lady’s actions are laudable; better late than never if it truly aroused compassion. But could we not maintain this attitude through the year? Why restrict it to a month, a week or a day?
Merry Christmas, all!
To conclude on a festive note, enjoy this Jingle Bells ditty that only Punjabis’ sense of levity is capable of producing: