Life & Style

Christmas seasoned in nostalgia

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Daphne Gomez captures the spirit of Christmas of another era

Christmas is just a few days away, and I cannot help musing about past. Celebrations used to start a month in advance with the making of the wine and the readying of the fruit for the cake. My mother was particular about washing the raisins and the plums, then drying them in the sun before soaking them in spices, rum and brandy.

Then came the painstaking task of fishing out our old address book and helping my father to write out the cards which he chose as much for the wordings as for the size and looks. He and my mother had numerous brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins who had emigrated to Malaysia, Singapore, UK and Africa. The list got updated each year with the second generation marrying and multiplying. He painstakingly wrote out each one of them in his beautiful handwriting, adding “with love and kisses” before signing off with each of the six names of his children, in addition to his and mother’s. I could see how much he missed them as he wrote out each card. Later in life, when I started life independently after my marriage, I tried to emulate him but failed miserably as I began to shorten the list when the tribe increased and I couldn't keep up with the names. Once I even made the terrible mistake of sending a card to a deceased aunt as I blindly followed the list!

Then came my lesson in geometry as my father settled down on the floor of the living room with kite paper, sticks and homemade paste to make a revolving Christmas lantern or karakku. The sticks had to be cut to measurement and arranged in hexagonal fashion before being covered with white tissue and trimmed with silver paper. When it finally hung outside the front porch after the fourth Sunday in Advent, and began to rotate with the heat of the candle inside, it was truly a magic lantern. When pretty Japanese lanterns from Moore Market in Madras (the Christmas shopping destination for Anglo Indians) appeared, my father gave up making his karakku.

Our shopping spree to Madras had to be much earlier, as the material for the dresses had to be given to Narayanan tailor in Madurai, where we lived in the Railway Colony, well in advance. No fancy outfit selected from the spring or summer catalogue mailed by a relative from abroad, was too difficult for the sartorial skill of Narayanan tailor.

Our shoes were handcrafted in genuine leather by Athikannu, a shoemaker famed for having fashioned many a lady's wedding shoes in Thiruvananthapuram. In those days, his outlet was right in Palayam.

The earlier the cake was made, the better the chances of getting five pounds of it baked in our friendly neighbourhood bakery. Everyone had to have a go at churning the butter and sugar with a wooden mathu as my mother believed the more the stuff was churned the softer the cake would be. By the time the seasoned fruit and nuts and dark caramelised sugar were added, the house would be filled with the aromas of the season. The tins lined with buttered brown paper would be taken to the baker’s, then once baked, neatly stacked until Christmas midnight mass.

Meanwhile, in our small backyard we would set up a makeshift firewood oven. The massive uruli would take centre stage for halwa. This time the family shied away, mainly due to the muscle power required to stir the mixture of milk extracted painstakingly from soaked, ground wheat and molasses for black halwa, and refined sugar for white.

Someone would be hired to wield the long, wooden-handled metal spatula. Dollops of homemade ghee and cashew nuts would be thrown in for good measure. The consistency would be checked when the going got tough and the mixture started collecting from the sides to the centre of the uruli. My grandmother would then do the final test by dropping a teaspoon of the rich smelling mix into a bowl of cold water. If it turned hard it would be chewy and just the way I liked it. Ghee-smeared porcelain plates would be ready for the delectable sweetmeat to be spread on, scored into diamond shapes while still warm. Brave expat women of my mother's generation, still going strong, make small quantities on the gas cooking range, because for them nostalgia for tradition is all that remains!

The list of homemade goodies included Kul Kuls or cheep appams, achappams, coconut sweet and a now rare treat called thari dosi halwa. In the days when huge quantities of rice were hand pounded, roasted and sieved to be stored for making various items, tiny pellets that were left on the sieve would be collected and made into the heavenly tasting thari dosi.

Early morning on Christmas day we would be attired in our finery and sent out in different directions with trays loaded with homemade goodies to be delivered to our neighbours. Only after we returned would we sit down to breakfast on dumpling stew and kallappams followed by all the other delectables. Of course, we would have had cake and wine soon after returning from midnight service.

Until Epiphany in the first week of January, the whole family would visit close relatives and the visits would be returned. Real-time connectivity was established and would be reciprocated. The decorations and the crib would be admired and niceties exchanged. The crib was fashioned out of reeds, straw or coconut leaf thatch to resemble a stable, or a cave was simulated with rocks made from newspaper painted over in dark brown lime paint. In a later variation, a tray of mustard grass formed a lush base with the animals browsing in between. Human ingenuity was at its noteworthy best!

Timeliness was characteristic of those days and just as the lantern or star would appear at the right time after the fourth Sunday in Advent so would the decorations be taken down promptly the day after Epiphany, with only the spirit of Christmas lingering until the next time.

(The author is a former professor of English and founder of L’ecole Chempaka. A member of the Trivandrum Anglo Indian Association, 70-year-old Daphne hails from Pettah in Thiruvananthapuram but grew up in Madurai in the sixties where her father was working in the Indian Railways.)

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 8:00:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/daphne-gomez-captures-the-spirit-of-christmas-of-another-era-seasoned-in-nostalgia/article25798586.ece

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