Meher Marfatia: Marzipans and midnight mass

Published: Dec 25, 2016, 06:35 IST | Meher Marfatia |

How did vintage Bombay bring in the festive season?

I was Mother Mary for a day. One day, every year for four years. At the mere mention of a fifth Nativity play in school (a stay-still tableau discouraging the barest budge), I protested. It wasn't the silence I minded as much as freezing for what seemed forever. "Please may I have another part," I asked, boldly for a shy kid.

The Paranjoti choir singing in this year's Christmas concert at The Scots Kirk of St Andrew’s, Lion Gate. The 200-year-old Presbyterian church still follows the practice of draping white cloth on pews and has blue carpets - the uniform colours of Navy officers who frequented it. Pic Courtesy Sam Santosh
The Paranjoti choir singing in this year's Christmas concert at The Scots Kirk of St Andrew’s, Lion Gate. The 200-year-old Presbyterian church still follows the practice of draping white cloth on pews and has blue carpets - the uniform colours of Navy officers who frequented it. Pic Courtesy Sam Santosh

The drama teacher cast me as Cinderella in a parallel production, promising, "You'll have so much movement in the ballroom scene." Except that my Prince Charming proved a disastrous dancer. Torturously twirled by him (who was her, of course, at St Joseph's Convent), my feet hurt bad in high heels. I waited to bolt off stage at the midnight clock strike, happy to shed a shoe as I ran.

My brother said, "You should've stuck to the manger act", as Bing Crosby's baritone boomed "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" from our Grundig system. Thanks to a childhood in Bandra, he and I remain fully fascinated by the trappings of this season. Not only cribs and carols, tinsel and trees, but all those sinful sugar plums, rum puddings and milk creams beckon. They were delivered to our house in holly-twigged trays dressed with plump satin Santas, from East Indian and Goan neighbours.

Hard to beat architect Clement DeSylva's recollections of nutty-fruity delights in his book and blog, Bandra Buggers: 'Marzipan had to be stirred clockwise, from the inside out, like a Well of Death rider. When it dripped onto the side of the stove, our fingers would transport it into our mouths and us to Christmas sweet heaven. Out of 100 dates to be deseeded, 20 went missing in action. Caught with the date in your pretending-to-be-empty mouth, you got a whack with the belan!'

At St Anthony's Pavilion during Christmas week in the late 1940s. After prayers, this was also where a stretched canvas drugget formed a makeshift dance floor, for members to enact musical hits like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire's We’re a Couple of Swells. Pic Courtesy Anette D'Cruz
At St Anthony's Pavilion during Christmas week in the late 1940s. After prayers, this was also where a stretched canvas drugget formed a makeshift dance floor, for members to enact musical hits like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire's We’re a Couple of Swells. Pic Courtesy Anette D'Cruz

Colaba resident Michael Pereira remembers school in the 1950s had Michaelmas holidays. Michaelmas Day was September 29 but it carried the first hints of Christmas. He too contributed to a laden food table, rolling coconut fudge, guava cheese and kulkuls. "We spent hours kneading flour onto backs of forks to shape it for frying. A defence forces family, we were obliged to entertain." Visiting grandparents after 8 o'clock mass on Christmas morning meant roast masala duck for breakfast, before returning home to tear open presents. Then the big party lunch started with pate de foie gras and smoked salmon. The piece de resistance — suckling pig — ringed by sorpotel, pork vindaloo, stuffed turkey and sliced ham, was crowned by bebinca as dessert.

Close to where Pereira lives, the city's oldest church holds clues to how colonial Bombay greeted Christmas. A cathedral and an opera house are considered the distinctive marks of any great city. We were blessed with the former as a Christmas gift. On December 25, 1718, St Thomas's Cathedral at Fort welcomed an inaugural flock of faithfuls. Its construction was urged by Governor Gerald Aungier, who had hoped "to erect a small church for public worship in the centre of the town".

The beautiful St Thomas' Cathedral was the best Christmas gift to the city, opening doors to its first flock of worshippers on December 25, 1718
The beautiful St Thomas' Cathedral was the best Christmas gift to the city, opening doors to its first flock of worshippers on December 25, 1718

Work began in the 1670s, a decade into the British acquiring Bombay, but stalled when Siddis attacked. H E Cox's Story of St Thomas's Cathedral comments, 'The derelict building became a place for badmash's and beggars.' Completed by 1718, the cathedral was covered in palm branches for the opening ceremony. The extra long Christmas service concluded with a 21-gun salute fired from the Fort, answered by every ship in the harbour. Uniquely the sole buttressed structure in town, St Thomas's was festooned in local foliage. Invitees took formally appointed seats amid 'pillars adorned with wreaths of greens and double crosses all over the room like so many stars', Olga Valladares wrote in The Bombay Explorer of 1992.

What more meaningfully welcomes Yuletide than the lilt and luminosity of city choirs? It isn't festive cheer alone that drives Coomi Wadia to conduct the Paranjoti Academy Chorus in Christmas concerts across city churches. "We're talking about an event that moved the world," she says. "The sanctity of the holy birth must come through in music." Her recent favourite lyrics include the touching Tryste Noel by Richard Terry and German hymn Maria durch ein Dornwald ging composed by Hans Bauernfeind.

The Paranjoti choir just performed at the Scots Kirk of St Andrew's. Erected 200 years ago at Lion Gate, on the arrival of Bombay's first Presbyterian minister, its absolute jewel is a 164-year-old baby pipe organ. This is equal treasure for teen parishioners and veterans like 88-year-old Mariam Kanga, who tells me she feels overwhelmed as she draws soulful sounds from the keys. "I'm privileged to play this organ that produces rich, stirring tones," she says. Dr PN Prasad, of the Kirk Session, shares that the teakwood Bishop & Son 1852-manufactured organ reached India aboard a ship circling the Cape of Good Hope.

In the sylvan eastern suburb of Chembur in the 1940s, Church was St Anthony's Pavilion. Anette D'Cruz recalls this hub: church, school and club rolled into one. "Among my earliest memories is a ritual performed annually by my grandfather. On the 24th of December he'd get out the kerosene lamp, trim the wick and clean it in readiness for Midnight Mass. At 11.30 pm, the lamp lit, he led us single-file along narrow paths through open fields and plots of land where snakes and other nocturnal creatures roamed."

The bright altar was bedecked with flowers — the handiwork of ladies who'd polished and beautified it the previous evening, under the benign gaze of a cohort of saints. Warmly clad women in hats and similar cheery regalia sat at school desks doubling as pews. The sacristan, Herbert Cardoz, bustled about, finally igniting tall candles with a "magic stick" which was both lighter and extinguisher. Mass was chanted in Latin solemnity, the choir trilled its best. In the distant darkness jackal howls underscored the rural setting.
Chembur wasn't a parish till 1954. Before that, worshippers went to St Stephen's, Marouli, for baptisms and burials. "For Christmas, the Archdiocese sent a priest to Chembur for the required number of days," continues D'Cruz. "Once Chembur was declared Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, we had bishops and priests in sacerdotal attire and altar boys resplendent in starched white surplices and red gowns."

After such devotion, some revelry – a 1937 account of which was headlined by The Bombay Man's Diary, the widely read society column of The Evening News: 'Voices of jubilation swept the city and suburbs. It roared loudest and merriest at the Taj where there must have been two thousand souls bent on a very good time. An elaborate programme had been arranged by that enterprising duo Faletti and Framrose. The result was a proper Bacchanalian rout. The most sedate and sober pranced and capered with the zest of two-year-olds at a birthday party.'

Those dreaming of a White Christmas simply settled to pleasure piles of cards — in unwired days when we bought stacks of this stationery to hand-write wishes in. Another of DeSylva's blogposts records: 'In faraway Mississauga they wait for the snow to herald Christmas. In Bandra we wait for the first Christmas card. There were Papal postal seals issued specially for Christmas. Foreign stamps would be steamed off envelopes to put into albums. The cards were strung up spanning the doorway from living room to kitchen, or placed upright on the piano. There were 3D cards from Japan. The cows and donkeys and Baby Jesus in them were as real as real could be. Then came the global village and the worldwide web. The postman's bag gets lighter every year. The telegram wallah has thrown in the towel. And Gentleman Jim is going to be singing There's An Old Christmas E-mail.'

A personal Christmas memory always makes me smile. It shows that St Thomas's Cathedral's pretty spire, Porbunder stone apse and stained-glass windows continue to awe the youngest almost three centuries after that lovely design unfolded publicly. Winters ago, I'd joined my toddler son here from office to enjoy an evening of carols. He listened, gaped and whisper-lisped: "Mummy, ish thish heaven?"

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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