By A. Jessie Michael
Of all the major festivals in the world, none I think is more universally celebrated than Christmas. There is something in the air in December that reaches far and wide.
When I arrived in China in 2012 to teach, I found a dismal artificial, Christmas tree with tangled streamers, in my classroom, in March of all months! The students who had put it up had no notion of the origins or the meaning of Christmas (or any other religious festival) except that it was universally fashionable to celebrate this thing called Christmas, in December, with a tree. It did not occur to them that it should have been taken down in January. It was in Florida and Australia that I discovered the Christmas Shops. I could not imagine that they stayed open all year round. At Christmas, Floridians have Santa Clause, sleigh, reindeer, and lights and whatnots on their rooftops, down the driveway and all around the garden. Sydney lights up the city and has amazing light displays of the nativity on the outside walls of a Church. Singapore lights up Orchard road and makes it a tourist attraction. No city is spared this dressing up.
In the Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur near where I live, this year it is a White Christmas! There were white trees laden with white cotton and white streamers; there were white swans, still, on a glassy lake and deer motionless under cotton laden trees. There were even polar bears in mid-prowl on snow. Outside it was 33 degrees Celsius. The hotel lobbies in the city are even more beautifully done up. When our children were small, we used to take them hotel-lobbies just to view the decorations.
The origins of Christmas are religious and holy but always seen as a time for joy for everyone. Over the years with the advent of Santa clause with his legendary beginnings and his multiple selves, followed by Rudolph and his red nose competing with the Baby Jesus, Christmas has taken on two separate lives, the sacred and the secular. The first sings of the Child in the manger and the other of jingle bells and chestnuts on the fire. The sacred is Middle-Eastern, the secular is undeniably Western what with snowflakes and sleighs- bells. Yet there is no tension between the two. Somewhere in between, the twain do meet. The droves of people at the Mall with their children and cameras seem genuinely happy. The mood is infectious. I know for a fact that many non-Christians and total non-believers put up trees and exchange gifts just not to miss out in this season of goodwill.
For believers in my city and in other towns in Malaysia, I know the churches will overflow at every service — the Christmas eve services and the morning ones. It is always the case. The giving-trees are up where one can hang gifts for orphans. Christmas choir performances are on full swing if you care to check your events page on Facebook. At the same time, embassies are running their Christmas charity bazaars. There are the untold tales of those who celebrate with almsgiving. They visit the prisons, the homeless, the orphans or the aged with food, gifts and cheer. It is the season of giving and prayer and the season of joy, one in which even the saddest of hearts will smile a little and the hardest of hearts will melt a little. Everybody is in the mood, even the naysayers, who, like Scrooge, stomp their foot and say — “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge then did a volte face.
Charles Dickens had captured the essence of the season beautifully in his novel written in 1843, A Christmas Carol — that charity, compassion and love reign supreme in this holy season.
The Christmases of my childhood were something that could only flourish in a time of innocence, of immeasurable generosity, joy, and busyness. Preparations were a two-month family project of house cleaning, repairing, painting and cooking.
There were no malls or supermarkets to browse for convenience foods. In an age of self-sufficiency everything was home-made — the flours for the cakes and cookies, the crib and the tree decorations — even the turkey to be home-roasted was home grown! The crib was usually a cave made of painted and crumpled paper and housed the statues of the Holy Family, the Three Kings and the shepherds, sheep and cows and — O yes — the angels!
Food was always multinational — Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western cuisines. Many hands lend wings to tedious labour so even the smallest child pitched in to glaze pastry, pack cookies and lick the cake bowls clean.
But the highlight of the baking was the famous family Christmas cake made with such duty and care, inebriated with brandy or sherry and preserved for a couple of months.
Where I grew up it was customary for us young ones to form little choirs and roam down the streets of the neighbourhood singling carols. In this day and age, we might be arrested for disturbing the peace. Midnight Mass was the highlight followed by the overwhelming excitement of getting gifts from our parents or aunts and uncles. The exchanging of gifts originates from the Biblical story of The Gifts of the Magi (the three kings of the Orient who followed the star of Bethlehem to the manger to pay homage to the baby Jesus, the promised Messiah) They brought gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. The shepherds as befitting their occupation, gifted new-born lambs.
The next morning, we had the unique tradition of sending trays of samples of cookies and cakes to neighbours, regardless of race or creed. The kitchen would have been busy for two days and on Christmas day all and sundry, we knew, would descend on our home till evening, invited and uninvited, to wish us and to eat. It was a joy to receive them and feed them. It was the season of goodwill.
Such a practice of preparing for and entertaining on Christmas day, followed me into adulthood. I had learnt to make traditional Christmas cookies at the feet of my own grandmother. I was seven but the smells, knowledge and memories linger to this day. When I was a little older, I joined my mother at the table each November holiday and chopped nuts and fruits for the Christmas fruit cake while my younger siblings darted between our legs stealing cherries, cashews and preserved pumpkin. Between the cutting and the soaking of the cut fruits and nuts overnight in brandy, there was always the pleasure of picking fallen raisins and currents, stealing pinches of the drunken mix and licking fingers. When baked and cooled, the cakes were cut into finger slices and wrapped. This was the time for feasting on the crumbs and begging for pieces to taste. It was a culture that seeped into us and I became an expert fruitcake maker. My children in turn sat with me as I baked, and learned to steal cut fruit and to critique if the cake was too dry, too wet or too sweet.
The years have flown and my daughters are grown. Living overseas, they have missed home Christmases sorely. I learnt of their loneliness in foreign lands when Christmas means going to a barely filled church and coming home to gifts and a family meal and that is all. No open houses or sharing of food. They all have email copies of the family secret recipe for fruit cake but the lucky devils have skipped the chopping board phase and moved into masterchef food processors. Therein lies the devil. Will their children appreciate the camaraderie of sitting around the kitchen table with an assortment of chopping boards and knives, mincing fruit and nuts while munching, chatting and bickering all day long?
The habit of open-house and exchange of food seems to be fading, as extended families diminish and are sprinkled over several continents. It is an inevitable change. Mother’s kitchens are replaced by restaurants and mothers by chefs. Family members criss-cross the skies, flying over continents for reunions, carrying with them the family Christmas cake — their little piece of home. They will have turkey. An adventurous one might attempt the murukku and another the mutton curry. This year I am not with them.
Yet their attempts to build their own Christmas is what defines us — the memories of the making, and our loving hands that made them, the pleasure of the taste of the dishes and the memories of the times they ate them.
A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions since the 1980’s and received honourable mentions in the Asiaweek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian Short Stories (2015) She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).
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