We used to celebrate Christmas like any other Christian family. There was cake, wine, a tree, and presents. My parents would try and make the 25th of December an extremely magical one for my brother and me. Christmas wasn’t just a holiday for us. It was much more; whether we went to my grandparents in Rajasthan, or just stayed in Mussoorie with the rest of our family friends. It was always such an exciting and surreal time. I remember how beautifully we’d do the house, decorate it in our own way – not every inch of it but certain parts of our rooms and the dining hall. The school we were in and the ones our parents worked for organized a Christmas party/banquet every year. It wasn’t much, but it was worth going to.
I was 12 years old when I moved to Hyderabad from Mussoorie. From Uttaranchal to Andhra Pradesh; from the north to the south of India. Almost everything in my life had changed. There was a major transformation even where our schools were concerned. All my life I’d been in international schools, and now to suddenly move to a national one was quite hard for me. It was mainly the cultural diversity that had such a massive impact on me. Though it did not affect my brother as much because of how young he still was. He made friends and gelled with everyone before I could even figure out where my class was. That phase for him was easy, and I’m glad he didn’t have to go through what I did.
However the most amazing change I’d felt was the winter of 2005 – Christmas time. My first Christmas in the city with my Anglo side of the family. My father is from Hyderabad and thus when we moved, it was my first time meeting a lot of them. My first impression of them was, “Boy aren’t they loud!” and it hasn’t changed since. Everyone in my family is a gun throat. What instigates them to be even louder would be all the excitement revolving the whole family being together. My aunt, Michelle, has the loudest voice of them all and a habit that almost everyone in this family has – of pinching each other’s butts really hard. It’s an Anglo thing that is really famous in my family. So when she saw me, she yelled, came running, lifted me in her arms and pinched my butt really hard. I still remember this because no one had ever done that to me before. I felt scared yet really happy to be amidst this new mess that I called home.
Christmas however had a completely different vibe in Hyderabad. It was completely different from what we did in Mussoorie. The people were different and the food too. I didn’t even know that there was something known as a ‘Rose Cookie’. It doesn’t really look like a cookie but like a brown ribbon tied in such a way that it looked like a flower. It’s not as hard as it looks but doesn’t exactly crumble in your mouth either. But if you’re wondering how it tastes, it’s exquisite. For me, it’s one of the best Christmas cookies.
I remember 10 or 12 days before Christmas, my grand aunt had started decorating her house. She’d asked me to bunk a day of school to help her. She gave me wine that day, white and sweet. I don’t know how many I had, but I was definitely feeling a little woozy and extraordinarily happy. It was just her and I. Her name is Beryl Pentony, but we’d all call her Bida. We took all day and most of the next day as well to finish decorating the entire house.
She’d only wear cotton kurtas and sarees. She didn’t have a perfume that she sprayed, just smelled like the old do; the homely grand-mother-y smell. She carried around this handkerchief all over the place, a blue and yellow one that was so frayed that every time I saw it I felt like buying her a new one.
We began with the streamers, the most beautiful ones I’d ever seen. There were green, red and white ones, and then the ones that were the combination of all three. We strung them all over the place, and since Bida had high levels of OCD, everything needed to be strung perfectly, without a single crease or slant. Once that was done I thought the house looked pretty already, she looked at me and laughed, saying “We’re not done. We’re so far from being done that this might take all Christmas!” I laughed too, pretending to find what she said funny.
After the streamers came the socks. They were the cutest, most abnormal looking socks I’d ever seen. No one would have fitted into them, they were designed especially for Christmas. They had multi-coloured buttons and shiny thread stitched all over. They were big enough to fit gifts in though, and not really in the shape of socks either, but in the shape of little decorated ‘Santa bags’.
After that, out came the tree and all the decorations along with it; there were two and a half cartons, out of which only one was used! Setting up the tree would have taken a very long time had it not been for my cousin Shayne who stayed back to help us. There was more wine being served, music played loudly, and a lot more people came over, and eventually ended up helping.
Over the course of the days the house looked like the most Christmassy house I’d ever seen. Bida was extremely popular and had a lot of people coming to see her. As it is, my dad’s side of the family is huge, so there were a lot of aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I’d get confused but still pretend to know everyone’s name. His mother, my grandmother, was a part of seven sisters. Dad was the oldest among five of his siblings. So there were too many relatives for anyone to remember and meeting them all at once was definitely a bad idea.
Wine was constantly being made. Bida’s helper was also trained to make wine, cake and Shepheard’s Pie. I’d end up eating most of it every day, which is why I was banned from the kitchen soon after.
Midnight mass was something I hadn’t heard of either. We’d go to church in the morning in Mussoorie, not at 11 in the night. This whole system got me really excited. Just the idea of getting ready at 9:30 in the night, and sitting in church at 11 was new and different. We had to leave early because of how far away our house was from the church. The drive there was beautiful though. We’d go through the Tank Bund road and spot a bunch of people on the way that we knew that were going to church as well. The tradition was to come back home and have wine and cake, sit around and talk to everyone, exchange gifts, and then eventually doze off to sleep.
The first time all of this happened was a little too much for me. I was so sleepy during mass that I’d keep dozing off and then on the way back home I’d have fallen asleep in the car, and then in Bida’s house again. I couldn’t wake up for the gifts, and that was not how I had seen my first Christmas being spent. It was only the next year that I realised how much I’d missed out on.
The next five Christmases were a breeze. I spent each Christmas with my family, despite my friends asking me to spend it with them. It was a different experience altogether. Each minute with them was entertaining and filled with so much fun. There were always more than 20 people in my house. To me it almost felt like a reunion of sorts, even though I’d keep seeing them throughout the year.
The first Christmas I’d spent after leaving Hyderabad for good, was terrible. I missed everything and everyone. That Christmas my family didn’t do much, all we had was a star outside the door and a small tree that was barely decorated. None of us were in the Christmas-y mood, and till this day, we’d give anything to go back.