By Lisa Mathew
When we were kids living in Bombay and Madras (now Mumbai and Chennai respectively), Christmas was mostly a religious occasion. There was Sunday morning church service followed by a big Syrian Christian Kerala feast of coriander chicken, peppery beef fry, red sour fish curry, chili fish fry, vegetables with coconut, pickles and poppadums. There was no hype surrounding it at all.
But my dad made it extra special by adding a couple of twists, which are still not forgotten by our childhood friends. For one, he always made proper English fruitcake which was truly a miracle given it was made in a pressure cooker as hardly anyone had an oven then! Several were made in advance and generous chunks distributed to neighbours in the time honoured tradition of reciprocal for Diwali sweets.
This was to the despair of my mother, whose kitchen was turned upside down during this culinary event. Dad usually baked in the night when we were in bed so he could tune everything else out Zen style. However in the morning the kitchen resembled a war zone because he used almost every single dish available. With no dishwasher in sight, mum had to clean the kitchen and wash all the dishes before breakfast could start.
For two, we had a Christmas tree, which hardly anyone else had in those days. There was no real Christmas tree to be had, so my dad had the local odd job man chop up a local fir like tree, prop it up in the living room in a bucket filled with sand. Hung with home made crepe paper chains, balloons, lights and Christmas cards, hey presto! the space was transformed into something magical.
Christmas cards were bought in advance but always written in a last minute rush. The cards were usually from UNICEF in a bid to be charitable at Christmas. They had unusual paintings by local artists and it was fun choosing what to send to whom.
A big lighted paper star went up in the balcony to proclaim to the world that we were celebrating Christmas so the nosy aunties knew who the Christians in the neighbourhood were.
Mum made a few traditional Kerala Christmas sweets, usually diamond cuts or rose cookies. The first is a rolled out pastry cut into diamond shapes and deep-fried, then quickly dipped in sugar syrup. Basically they taste like crisp sugar dusted cookies. The other is a sweet batter with nigella seeds into which you dipped a flower or butterfly shaped mold and then shook it into boiling oil where it metamorphosed into a sweet fritter. These were also distributed to neighbours.
On Christmas Eve, all the neighbourhood kids were invited home. Carols played on the tape recorder and the festive mood gave everything a special feeling. The smaller kids gaped in wonder at the tree because they’d never seen anything like it before and then proceeded to hoover up all the snacks they could.
On Christmas Day, we had to be dragged out of bed for church because no one wanted to get up early on a holiday. Our parish church was an hour away but sometimes we cheated and went to the local one. My mother caught up on sleep on the bus and we kids slept in church because the service was in formal Malayalam so we didn’t understand most of it! But the singing in the annual Christmas service was sweet and old fashioned and we knew all the songs so we sang along.
Then it was home for lunch and sleep followed by visits from friends and family with tea and snacks and the general happiness of an extra day off from school and work.
These days, my parents are retired in Kerala and they have all the time in the world. I live in London while my siblings are in Bangalore and Chennai so coming home for the Christmas hols is really family time again. And the weather is perfect – 25 degrees, dry and sunny.
Christmas cards are not common now. A few die-hard aunties still send them and we love getting them but we don’t send them. I hope it comes back as a retro fashion…
Christmas trees and ornaments made in China now flood the market and are very affordable so we have all the choice in the world to make it look exactly as we want to. The fir tree in the garden is also lit up, as is sometimes the porch. Of course, there are people these days that flood the whole outside of their house with lights that blink all night long and make you close your curtains tight when you are trying to sleep!
The other new thing is numerous teenage choirs roaming the residential streets looking for donations. Unfortunately their singing is atrocious and they herald their advent with a loudspeaker belting out music till 4am so people have no compunction in locking the gate when it gets dark to prevent them from ringing the doorbell.
In Kerala it is usual to have fireworks at Christmas unlike the rest of India with fireworks at Diwali but the kids love them and so do I!
Dad makes rum fruitcakes these days as he has an endless supply of imported rum from me. Ingredients are not as expensive and more easily obtained, as is a decent oven. Sadly no one has the inclination to bake anymore so bakeries stop selling their normal wares and stock only plum cakes and fruitcakes during this period. Mum doesn’t have the stamina to make Christmas sweets so we buy those.
Luckily she isn’t able to drag us to church anymore. We have a smaller feast for lunch but I usually bring Christmas clementine puddings, tawny port wine, dark mint chocs and anything else that catches my fancy from England so we have fun trying new things every time.
Christmas then had an innocence and charm that it doesn’t have now but my niece and nephews would beg to differ as they have an equally magical one now that is created by us.
About Lisa: Lisa Mathew lives in London but travels around the world for work and pleasure. She can otherwise be found baking, gardening or dreaming but mostly buried in a book @lisalizlis
Did you know? These are postal stamps of India, commemorating Christmas. These stamps were released in the year 2008.