Cake, wine, dance and get-together — but the community is still open to innovations.
Christmas begins long before Christmas. Our celebration of the birth of Christ starts about 60 days before December 25. It continues for at least 12 days after and its customs are as bright and complex as a festively-knotted ribbon around a Christmas present. Such intricacy is part of our heritage. As the only community defined by our Constitution, we draw on our paternal surnames and our multi-ethnic traditions. They've been blended into our customs with the enthusiasm with which generations of Anglo-Indian teens once stirred fruit, nuts, candied peel, flour, brandy and even coins into that delectable, gooey, mix that creates Christmas cake and Christmas pudding.
By early November, our homes are rich with the aroma of baking, wafting like the warm promise of things to come. Cakes have to be sent out to the diaspora in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Many of our families, supported by the prosthesis of reserved jobs in the Railways, P&T, Police and Customs had spurned a college education. Post 47 they had had to flee to lands with easier employment opportunities. They couldn't return home for Christmas and so we sent nostalgic packets of our Indian Christmas to them. The pre-Independence Anglo-Indian chatelaine entered the kitchen on ceremonial occasions only, so our fare continued to be enriched by a revolving door of chefs as our forbears were transferred from “station” to “station” all over India.
Then there are the Christmas cards. Today we either air-mail or e-mail them but it is still an all-family affair. If an octogenarian grand-aunt in Oshkosh doesn't receive her greetings on time the ripples of her wrath would spread all across the diaspora: “I don't know what this generation is coming to, my dears. I tell you!!”
Comes the tenth day before Christmas. Christmas trees, lights, decorations, streamers, the Christmas star and the crib are pulled out of storage, dusted, stood, hung, nailed up and built. This is the most hazardous time of Christmas because we tend to forget that 365 days have passed since we did it last. Muscles are not as strong, joints not as flexible, the sense of balance a little woozier. But it's still great fun and when it's all up, and the cards overflow from the mantel, the table, the pelmets, the house looks Christmassy. Carols ring out from the player and the cuts, burns and abrasions don't really matter any more.
Those who have the time, and the know-how, taste their home-made wine. We still have our secret of that old, Anglo-Indian, non-alcoholic drink called OT. The initials stand for “The Other Thing”. So, when the carollers come calling and giving us their variations of the traditional Christmas songs, we are obliged to offer them cake and wine and a small contribution for charity.
Then there is the Christmas dance, often but not always with contributory food and a bowl of punch. For Anglo-Indians, dances and get-togethers were a social necessity. It was where our young people met each other — very important in a community that shuns the idea of an arranged marriage. “You must find your own life partner, child. After all you're getting married so it's your responsibility.” Nowadays, people meet each other in the work place, so dances are not as important as they used to be, but they are still exhilarating.
Worship and wishes
Midnight mass, to bring in Christmas, is always the highlight of the Christmas festivities. It's only when we return from mass that we can slice the traditional ham, boiled, crumbed, clove-dotted, collared and displayed on a silver charger. This is when we pick up our presents from under the Christmas tree and then catch a few hours of sleep before starting our rounds of Christmas calls on our friends. Then receiving them with Christmas cake, other goodies and beer, shandy, OT or whatever. Christmas lunch is always a family affair because we don't know when the calls will be over. That Anglo-Indian staple, kofta curry and yellow rice is a virtual necessity at this meal.
Christmas dinner, however, is a formal one with crystal. Christmas-crackers, soup, fish, roast goose or turkey, Christmas pudding, coffee and liqueurs. The lights are switched off when the pudding is brought in, blazing with the blue flames of brandy. Those who can manage their first bite, while it is still alight, will have their wishes granted. If, however, you chew too vigorously, you might lose a tooth on a concealed coin!
But that isn't the end of the Christmas festivities. The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day. It's not called that because those who have celebrated Christmas not wisely but too well tend to be belligerent: though that is one of the hazards of over indulgence! It's called Boxing Day because this is when, traditionally, families make small packets, or “boxes”, of Christmas goodies and distribute them to the less fortunate: To orphanages and old people's homes, for instance. Now, very slowly, the elation of Christmas begins to wind down.
The sixth of January is, formally, the last day of the Christmas celebrations. This is when the Three Wise Men visited the infant Jesus in his cave-stable in Bethlehem. Traditionally, Christmas decorations are removed on January 7. We, however, do this on January 10 because one of us has a birthday on the ninth.We are still open to innovations to the celebrations of our Anglo-Indian Christmas.