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Christmas - Just Like The Ones We Used to Know

One of the legacies of the colonial rules is the Anglo Indian community growing smaller by the day. Standing on the border of two traditions this community evokes a lot of wonder and interest. Hugh and Colleen Gantzer let you peep into their lives during Christmas time. This nostalgic piece takes you back in time to two different palaces in India : Bombay and Bihar where the couple spent their childhood.

Above our cottage in the oak woods, snow clouds are forming in the high Himalayan sky : smoky grey masses against a pearl grey background. Soon we’ll live in a Christmas Card : a red-roofed cottage in the snow, golden light streaming from its windows, smoke pluming out of its chimney. Inside there’ll be bright streamers and tinsel and holly, a glittering Christmas tree rising above wrapped presents and festive Christmas cards on every available space. And, inevitably, Bill Crosby singing :

I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,

Just like the ones I used to know….

But we didn’t really know such Christmas as children. It doesn’t snow in the plains and so our childhood Christmas were filled with sunlight and the bright red burst of poinsettias against a whitewashed wall and nodding yellow calendulas, and the heady perfume of sweet peas when the soft wind blew through their trellis.

One of us was born into a family of Civil Servants and professionals in Bihar. The other came from a line of expatriates who built the great railways of India and lived in the Bombay Presidency.

Ours was a large, tiled, railway house with a verandah of arches and the spreading green fields of Bombay’s suburbia beyond. Trains went chuffing, clanking, thundering down the track which separated us from the Institute : the bright centre of our social lives.

Christmas trembled in the air. The old tailor, sat cross-legged on a mat whirring his hand-powered machine creating my Christmas frock in frothy pink. Aunty caught the local train to Crawford Market. Everyone in Bombay went Christmas shopping in Crawford Market.

In Hazaribagh, Bihar, our house looked out across a lawn, down a gentle slope, to a lake dotted with wild duck. Granny, with her glasses, sat on a cane chair pouring over fat catalogues from Calcutta. For us, everything ‘Christmassy’ came from Calcutta : from Hall & Andersons, and Whiteaway Laidlaw and the Army & Navy Stores. Hornby trains and Mechano sets and Daisy air guns and Mickey Mouse albums. We were hopping-impatient with excitement. The expectations of little boys and little girls varied in those well-defined days.

But there was no variation in the demand for Christmas cake. Tacky, messy, mouth-watering Christmas cake mixture, stirred in a bowl with eggs and flour and raisins and candied peel and caramel and powdered sugar and spices and brandy. Silver and gold coins were mixed into the plum pudding : it was steamed and hung in a cloth bag in the pantry and the whole house was redolent with the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and toasted raisins. Then we bathed, dressed and rushed out to the Institute for the sports ; and the next evening for the Fancy Dress parade. And the next evening for presents from a hoho-hoing Santa Claus who was really Mr. Murphy, the Loco Foreman. Though we were all bursting with suppressed mirth we kept his secret.

Christmas was great fun !

The parties in the Hazaribagh Club were not nearly as much fun as those in the Institute, but there were other ‘Christmassy’ things.

Trudging in the cold, pre-dawn, light, we huddled on the ridge of a paddy field, cradling our guns. We hear a distant quacking and freeze. A huge flight of pintail ducks wheels in. The guns bark. Seventy-three ducks bank away, nine fall. We trudge back, our shoes squelching. Duck vindaloo will be on Gran’s menu for Christmas lunch, and I can almost taste its rich, vinegary-spicy flavour.

We put up our Christmas decorations. Christmas cards glowed everywhere. We stood on chairs and tables and hung the paper bells, streamers, balloons, Chinese lanterns and holly and sprigs of mistletoe over the doors. Then the older children sat and told us ghost stories in the gloaming.. you must tell ghost stories at twilight at Christmas time…and I shivered in my bed that night and couldn’t sleep while the moon poured in through the window and a huge owl went ‘Who ? Who? ‘ in the fig tree outside. It was a sepulchral sound.

In contrast the happiest sound of Christmas was the sound of carolers.

We heared their voices in the drive and came out. Crash-jingle went the tambourines. We Three Kings of Qrient are…, a little off key, the guitar not quite in tune, the tambourine too loud and the smoky lanterns held high to glow gold on the faces of the carolers. There’s Arthur, and Sybil, and the Sequeria sisters and Cynthia and Oscar and the Miller twins with the tambourines, and Dennis who thinks he’s Errol Flynn. When they’ve sung two carols, Uncle invites them in and they sit around and have cake and wine and then they chorus Happy Christmas and move on. It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.

Then we went to ‘Watchnight Service’ or Midnight Mass.

We step into a warm little church, filled with flowers, the flicker of candles and Baby Jesus lying in his crib in a stable. The clear voices of the Nuns sing Adeste Fidelis and the Holy Host lies fleetingly on the tongue.

“Happy Birthday, Jesus”, says six-year old Marianne Wheeler, kneeling at the crib, and suddenly, Christmas falls into place. We’re having a world-wide Birthday Party.

Birthday parties never change.Our Christmas days never changed.

Waking exalted on a bright Christmas morning. Unwrapping presents, friends kissed and hugged, and back-slapped with boisterous bonhomie ; plenty to eat, plenty to drink. The fortifying reassurance of Christmas lunch; news of the family flowing across the table, easily absorbed; photographs in a garden to be sent with long letters to distant lands ; throwing bridges of nostalgia across the world, knitting our diaspora with memories. Evening comes quickly, and we change for Christmas dinner. Relaxedly formal. Good friends, old friends arrive ; mellow wine and spirits and the non-alcoholic OT. Songs around the piano, our eyes filmed with happiness. Old ties renewed, old tales retold, old jokes laughed at . We walk into the dining room ; sit down, spread damask napkins, pick up crackers, cross arms, tug.. Bang! Bang! Bang! ….and favours and fortune-cards and paper hats and whistles tumble out and soon we’re all children again with trumpets, hoots of laughter, wine and mountains of food. The ham’s carved, the turkey’s sliced, the suckling pig portioned. There’s tomato soup with swirls of cream, fried fish and tartare sauce, boiled peas and roast potatoes, baked cheese and cauliflower, ice-cream fresh from the churner, mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce and walnuts, pistachios, liqueur chocolates, peppermints.

The lights are dimmed. The khitmutagar ( the waiter) bears in the plum pudding with aplomb, smiling broadly, proud of his role. The pudding is drenched with brandy and set alight and its blue flame illumines our faces as we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, for those who are far away but still loved. And then we help ourselves to the dark, rich, hot confection, waiting till everyone’s been served, hoping the flame still flickers because then all our wishes will be granted. Shouts of delight as the silver and gold coins are discovered, proudly displayed and proudly pocketed. Coffee, brandy and liqueurs in the Drawing Room. Everyone’s content, everyone’s smiling, everyone’s reaching out. If only, if only, this Birthday could last forever. But nothing can, nothing does. Half-suppressed yawns precede sleepy ‘Good Nights’. Doors close. The house darkens. There are only the lights on the Christmas Tree blinking on, blinking off. Glinting on the tinsel. Darkening.. glinting… darkening.

Lighting flares across the Himalayas bringing us back to our cottage in the oak woods, in the here and now. The fire is just a glow in the stove. There is a soft whisper of drizzle on the roof. It is almost cold enough to snow.

It is time to sleep and drift into dreaming of a white Christmas.