Aditya Sinha: The ghosts of Christmases past

Published: Dec 26, 2016, 08:11 IST | Aditya Sinha

From a child eagerly waiting for shiny new toys, to a grown man celebrating with his family, Xmas takes on new meaning each time

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa holds up an idol of Baby Jesus in St Catherine’s Church after the Christmas Midnight Mass and walks in procession to the ‘Grotto’, believed to be the birth place of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, West Bank. Pic/AFP
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa holds up an idol of Baby Jesus in St Catherine’s Church after the Christmas Midnight Mass and walks in procession to the ‘Grotto’, believed to be the birth place of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, West Bank. Pic/AFP

Christmas is one of my favourite holidays. During childhood, it was the year’s highlight, for that was when Father Christmas (as we, growing up in the Midlands in the late 1960s, knew him) was sure to leave shiny awesome toys under the tree that my mother put up in our modest living room. There was no Holi or Diwali to be celebrated in England back then, at least in small towns far from London — unlike now, when Hindu festivals are celebrated in every nook and cranny with gusto and pride — and my mother, to ensure we didn’t feel left out of the excitement of other boys, made it as proper a holiday for us as possible. Also, my school then devoted part of the morning in a chapel and one of the crushing moments of my boyhood came when my friends gang pointed out that there was no Saint Pinkoo (my nickname that my parents somehow consciously registered at school as my proper name).

We returned to India a few months before Bangladesh’s liberation and no one in Bihar knew much about Christmas, except that it was celebrated by tribals down in Chhota Nagpur (present day Jharkhand). It did not matter. Just before winter I was introduced to the most wondrous festival a little boy could imagine, one where he got a big bag of fireworks and let loose. Fire and explosions: Diwali was enough to make a boy forget Christmas.

In 1974, we moved to the USA and it was goodbye to fireworks and hello again to Father Christmas, though in the New World he was called Santa Claus. In high school, I began spending Christmas Eve at the home of my friend Craig, who was the only other schoolmate admitted to Stuyvesant High School, to and from which we travelled by the New York City subway every day. His father was a recent German migrant who spoke with a heavy accent (I had quickly picked up the American accent, since kids have more rapid adaptability), and every Christmas Eve there was a mid-boggling spread of cold cuts — and a lot of drinking. I discovered eggnog, a rich milk-and-eggs drink that was spiked. The first Christmas Eve at Craig’s must have been the first time I got a buzz. I devoured the cold cuts, especially the tongue (cow’s or pig’s I’m not sure, but delicious nonetheless). The next morning we exchanged presents; for us teenagers that meant vinyl LPs of The Who or Billy Joel, etc.

There wasn’t much carolling or prayer at Craig’s home and that might be because his mom, whom I remember with great tenderness and affection, was Jewish. Thus Christmas at their place was a secular holiday and it has always been that for me (though Christmas at Craig’s was also my first glimpse into that great American holiday tradition — family getting drunk and squabbling).

When I went off to an out-of-town college, there were no more Christmas Eve parties and since we were now all grown up, my mother did not bother with Father Christmas (perhaps because her difficulties with my father were multiplying). It was a time to visit Manhattan and skate at Rockefeller Centre or at the Central Park rink, or just check out the dazzling decorations on Fifth Avenue.

And then, as an adult, I returned to India and Christmas became a distant memory until I met my wife. She is from the Northeast — her mother’s side was from a big tea garden where many a British custom survived Independence, including a jolly Christmas; and in her part of the country many states have Christian-majority populations for whom the holiday is not only joyous but also sacred, so she found it easy to slip into the Christmas spirit. So, when my three children were growing up, we kept a Christmas tree every December, decorated with tinsel and bells and lights, where presents showed up every Christmas morning. Now my children are grown up and two are in Southern California, so Christmas is a bit wistful. And my wife and I don’t have the energy to put up a tree.

In 2004, I visited Israel on the invitation of its foreign ministry to a group of Indian journalists. It remains one of my favourite professional trips. We drove past Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus, enroute to the Sea of Galilee and suddenly Christmas took on a whole new historical meaning for me. And when I stood in Jerusalem, the historic gravity of the city was palpable. I cannot describe how connected I felt to a past from where sprang Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I felt one with all things — you could say I experienced Brahman. It was glorious.

Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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