Leafing through articles on Christmas from journals of yore
Christmas articles in the Delhi newspapers of the 1950s — referred to as copy in the newsroom — were generally handwritten, though some did take the trouble of typing them. Black lead pencils were used to sub the copy before it was sent to the caseroom for Linotype setting and then to the proofreading department. The most consistent writers on the subject then were Gertrude Little, Alfred J. Edwin, Thomas Smith, Margaret Chatterjee and Charles Fabri. The last named was ……the most learned drama, art and literary critic in town at that time. He had been invited by Rabindranath Tagore to join Santiniketan and came all the way from East Europe for the purpose.
There were some writers from Calcutta too, like Mervyn Harding and Desmond Doig. Sometimes PWJ Crosland and E.B. Brook also contributed to fill up the four-page Christmas supplement of The Statesman. The Illustrated Weekly and My India, widely sold in the Capital in those days, had their own list of writers, among them, if memory serves, right Ruskin Bond.
Gertrude Little had a style reminiscent of a latter-day Jane Austen. And Englishwoman who had made Delhi her home for years, she knew the Capital like the back of her hand. One of the articles she wrote is still memorable. It was about the crib (tableau of Christ's birth) at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in which a hen had laid an egg. On Christmas morning the sacristan (the man who looks after the upkeep of the church and assists the priest in other ways, beside ringing the bell) was pleasantly surprised to find the egg lying within easy reach of Baby Jesus, with his mother and father (rather, their statues) looking on and the Good Shepherds and Wiseman in the background gazing at the Star of Bethlehem as though crediting the mysterious phenomenon with the appearance of the egg in the manger.
Whose hen it was that had come to pay its own tribute to the Christ Child could never be established. It had probably strayed in from the servants' quarters facing Gurdwara Bangla Sahib where some poultry was kept to supply desi eggs to the Archbishop's kitchen. Probably it was the Most Rev Mulligan who was the incumbent prelate at that time. Incidentally, a pair of silver bangles was once presented to the Divine Infant by a Brahmin woman.
Thomas Smith contributed articles on Christmas and Easter of the Moghul days — from Akbar to Jahangir, as Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were more orthodox and not patronising enough towards the Jesuits. The celebrations in those days included a Christmas play in which boys and girls dressed up as angels and the Magi (in medieval robes) came on camels to the church, guided by the big star they had seen. The actors were members of the cosmopolitan community composed mainly of the European merchants — the English, French, Armenian, Flemish, Dutch, Spanish and Danish.
Margaret Chatterjee, who taught at Miranda House, was also English, and her contributions were always extraordinary. She saw the Delhi Xmas scene not through the eyes of a foreigner but those of a kindly friend who had settled down in the Capital. She wrote on Christmas music and the somnolent tunes of “Silent Night”.
Edwin was an authority on local lore, savouring Carlton cakes and Bombay House Pudding. Fabri's approach was scholarly and he wrote some of the best Christmas pieces one has ever read, though he was not a practising Christian. In later years John Missal, who died young, wrote about a young couple who had fallen out walking into a church after Midnight Mass. Surprised on seeing each other they couldn't help embracing and making up. It was a Christmas Carol that Charles Dickens would have probably loved to write.
As one grows old these memories come to lighten the burden of the years and one feels young enough again to welcome the season of good cheer that once included Ruby Irene's “pakwan” and Evelyn aunty's mince gujas, washed down with barrel rum.