All things bright and beautiful

Come Christmas and the song that comes to mind is 'Jingle Bells', a carol to whose lilting tune we lisped along as children, giving free rein to our feverish imagination of snow-clad English countryside with doll's house cottages and horse-drawn sleighs.

The imagery was no doubt fashioned by the books we read and the stories we were told at home and in school. In real life, few of us had seen a horse, leave alone a white winter or a horse-drawn sleigh. At least I hadn't. What we had seen were gaudily decorated faux Christmas trees, but more of that later.

It came as a surprise, and not a very pleasant one at that, when I discovered that 'Jingle Bells' had little to do with Christmas when it was penned in 1850 by a certain James Pierpont. Apparently, he wrote the lyrics at a watering hole called Simpson Tavern which could not have been a disreputable place since, we are told, one Mrs Otis Waterman saw him scribbling the lines on paper, as she was to testify years later.

That's presuming Mrs Waterman was a respectable member of Medford society in Massachusetts, where the tavern once existed and now a commemorative plaque stands. James Pierpont wrote the ditty for Thanksgiving and what he had in mind wasn't children cavorting in snow or careening on sleighs but horse-pulled carriages that were the primary mode of transport in 1850s America. The song fetched Pierpont instant success and mindful of profits to be made from sheet music, he copyrighted it in 1857.

Yet, over the years 'Jingle Bells' has evolved into the most popular Christmas carol. It comes in various versions -- from country to rock to soul to blue. There's even a 'bluegrass' version. And if you check out YouTube, you will find a Punjabi version, a Gujarati version and a Tamil version. It's like palak pizza or paneer burger. Very desi, very different, very in-your-face; it has nothing to do with Christmas or the mellifluous carols associated with Burrah Din, or Boro Din as we Bengalis call it.

Christ's Mass, or the midnight mass that will be observed at churches tonight, was and remains for the faithful. But Burrah Din or Christmas never had such restrictions. Theologians with an inquisitive mind continue to agonise over whether Jesus was indeed born in a manger at Bethlehem as December 24 merged into December 25 two millennia ago and the conflict between the Julian and Gregorian calendars remains unresolved. But those are distractions from the feast of Burrah Din.

It's likely that Winter Solstice was celebrated on this day in pagan Europe and its observance as Christmas marks the Christianisation of an ancient tradition. Faith in Christ was not seen as being exclusive to faith in nature's regenerative powers. Holly and mistletoe, hung on doors, were believed to have a magical effect, rejuvenating the reproductive cycle of man after a bitter and cold winter. Today they are mass produced in Chinese factories and serve as tacky decorations on shop windows in malls teeming with bored window-shoppers. 

It wasn't like that always. Calcutta, as it was known till the city was renamed Kolkata, celebrated Christmas with great cosmopolitan gaiety. Burrah Din was meant to reassert faith in the joys of feasting with a burrah khana that celebrated Calcutta's past as the Empire's Second City. It was a day for babus to be sahibs, to sip on fluids and eat food that didn't settle well on the Bengali palate, and debate the merits of fruit versus plum cake. Park Street, glittering with fairy lights, would be the embodiment of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'.

There was something extremely charming about the streamers and festoons that were put up at New Market. To my untrained mofussil eyes, the tufts of cotton on the ersatz Christmas tree in the centre of the market, Hogg Sahiber Bazaar as my grandmother used to call it, would look like real snow. The shimmering glass baubles and the satin ribbons were spellbinding.

A fat man, dressed as Santa, would stand nearby, sweating profusely, every now and then lifting his beard to wipe his face with a chequered, stained hanky. Nahoum's, stacked with cakes and biscuits was a child's fantasy come true. Flury's sold the best Swiss chocolate outside Europe, as its owners would claim. 

All that and more have long disappeared. Most shops in New Market now sell cut-price lingerie, lewdly displayed, for which Kolkata's Bengalis seem to have developed a perverse taste. Park Street looks like an old woman in miniskirts and red lipstick. Or, if you prefer, J. Alfred Prufrock with his trousers rolled. But Christmas is no occasion for maudlin sentiments. Feast and be merry. And, as Christmas greeting cards, before they became 'Happy Holidays' cards reflecting the bogus cosmopolitanism of our times, used to say, Peace on Earth. 

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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