This time of the year. Makes me happy and sad. This is about the time when I start missing home in India, acutely! The frenzy of Christmas. It was never about material gifts. It was about family, food, and fun.
Happy, because every Christmas I remember the joy I saw on everyone's face, particularly my mother. An Assyrian by birth, a victim of the first genocide of the world (the Assyrian and the Armenian Genocide of 1914), World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution, she found herself a refugee at the Red Cross Camp in Baghdad. Not having celebrated many Christmases' growing up, she dug in deep, embracing her husband's traditions, celebrating them in India, where she arrived as a young 16-year-old bride.
Almost everything was homemade. Ten days before Christmas, the nuts and the raisins and the other fruits would be soaked in rum. Four days before Christmas, the trek to the local baker, Sona Mia, would begin. The baking would take all afternoon. The "oven" was this huge clay structure with rods inside and a fire in the pit. Ahhh, the smells come back to me even now. The cakes would spend the night at the bakers to cool off. The next morning two hand-pulled rickshaws would be hired to go back and collect the cakes. Tin trunks would be lined with newspapers and the cakes would be stored in them to bring them back home.
Sitting on the rickshaw seat I would feel like the Queen, surveying her subjects. A special room in the house was dedicated to Christmas goodies. Only, one cake was allowed to be cut before Christmas. The rest were kept to be distributed along with other snacks that were made at home, to neighbors and friends. My mother spent days sitting on a "modha" on the terrace of our home, in front of a makeshift "chullah" making, kulkul's, rose cakes and arisa pitha. All these snacks were specific to Oriya Christians and every family took great pride in the shape, taste, and color of what they churned out.
As I sit here in the U.S., staring at the snow, I think about the snow on the Christmas tree back home in India. The Christmas tree at home was real. We had a huge Christmas tree in our front yard and every year branches were cut off and put in a pot in the drawing room to be decorated. The snow, we made, from rolls of cotton. Little fluffs that we put on the tree. Back then, I never knew that I would be in a land where there would be real snow.
Carol singing on Christmas Eve, with a bunch of us in trucks, going from door to door. Santa Claus coming to church with all our gifts in his bag (sent in by our parents) and us singing along his sleigh as he cruised the church driveway... oh, what glorious days!
Then came the Christmas lunch and dinner. The excitement! The fun of being with aunts, uncles and cousins. Rushing back from Church on Christmas morning, with our Christmas best on, we could not wait to go home and take the platters covered with doilies door to door to greet our neighbors. They would empty the platters and put their goodies on it for us to bring home.
Then the lunch. Banana leaves from the garden would have been cut and washed. Durries would be spread out on the verandah and the kids would be fed first. The coconut rice, the mutton kofta curry, the pomfret fried, tomato khata and a vegetable, I can taste it now.
Then, we all grew up, and went our separate ways. Now and then some of us gather and get to spend Christmas with each other. It is never the same. Those beautiful moments when all of us were together is since, long gone. A lot of places are empty. The chair at the head of the table that kept us together is a distant memory, but not forgotten.
So, hang on to your moments, keep them close and create beautiful memories. It will never be "now" again.
With much love to you and yours this Christmas, from me.
Shabnam Samuel is the author of the best-selling memoir, "A Fractured Life" and is an international motivational speaker. She is also the founder of the Panchgani Writers' Retreat, based out of Panchgani in India. The retreat incorporates mindful living along with creativity and wellness following Ayurveda principles, with yoga, meditation and writing workshops. Shabnam is a student at the Kerala Ayurveda Academy in Kerala, India. When she is not writing, speaking or learning, you can find her cycling somewhere in the suburbs of Maryland where she has lived for over 30 years."
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