Christmas flies. Delightful and intensely annoying at the same time. They buzz in around October and remind you that the year is drawing to an end and by the time the end of the year actually rolls around you’re thoroughly sick of them. If they weren’t around, though, you’d notice immediately. They seem to be getting less and less now, which is sad. But maybe that means something too. That we’re growing up, that we don’t anticipate them anymore, that there’s no need for them anymore. I miss them.
My feelings about Christmas tend to fluctuate these days. Sometimes I surreptitiously switch on some carols on my iPod and sing along in my head while at office, barely able to contain my childish excitement that Christmas time is finally here. At other times, I couldn’t feel less Christmassy, less happy or festive. Which frustrates me, because I love Christmas – not for the presents and the sales and the over-commercialization of the season – but for the simple thrill of doing something so quaintly traditional, something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.
It’s sad how things have changed through the years though. Not sad so much as bittersweet, I guess. I remember how we used to do things when I was small. Nothing out of the ordinary really, nothing large scale, but it was what I was brought up doing, so it was just…special.
I’d wake up at 6 am – the usual time I’d wake up to go to school. But this would be the only day I didn’t complain about it. Come to think of it, I doubt I’d have gone to sleep much at all – the prospect of Christmas day was just too much and would render me an insomniac. My parents would put our Santa toys into pillow cases (a classic Sri Lankan substitute for stockings — love it) and my sisters and I would dive to the bottom of our beds before we could even get the sleep out of our eyes to greedily plunge our hands into the cases to see what we got. Drawing books, water-colour pencils, the odd Enid Blyton and dolls were the usual ingredients but each year we just appreciated them more.
After running around with our respective loots, we’d be pushed to get ready for church. So we’d be forced into our stiff new dresses (which we all hated) and told to sit quietly until the grownups were ready and when they were, we’d be off. We’d drop by my gran’s place first to drop the presents off under the tree, pick her up and wish her Merry Christmas and we’d all go in together. The service was always rather tedious for us at that age. Sermons were just boring speeches that we couldn’t bother even trying to understand and we’d swing our legs impatiently, waiting for it to be over so that we could get out of our stuffy dresses. It was only when the time came to sing the carols that we’d spring up on our feet and sing out lustily. That’s one thing I miss terribly today – singing with my sisters.
After the service there’d be the usual kiss-and-huggage of relatives and friends and then we’d all pack ourselves back into the car and head over to my grand mother’s place for the most fabulous Christmas breakfast ever. The spread: that perfect milky kiri bath, crisp hoppers, fish curry, devilishly hot katta sambol, fried eggs, sausages, bacon galore (fried within an inch of its life…mmm), my favourite – mouth-watering chunks of juggery, followed by hot brudher topped with melted butter. Oh my how my stomach growls at the mere thought of it!
Then came the all-important present giving ritual. The kids would play Santa and hand out the presents and all the while my favourite Christmas CD would be playing in the background and I’d always be humming along. Heaven :)
Then, after breakfast and presents, we’d head over to my dad’s friend’s house for yet another breakfast. I was always too full to eat anything so my sisters and I would head straight to the room which belonged to the son of my dad’s friend. He’s one of my oldest friends – the first boy who ever liked me in fact – and we always got along famously. So to his room we all trooped to participate in an age-old tradition (for us anyway), which was to watch half of a really good movie – always half – no more, no less, because my parents never stayed long enough to ever finish a film. It was the cutest little quirk to my Christmas day – and I did it last year with him after years because we were finally in the country at the same time. It’s even more bittersweet because I know it’ll never happen again. He got married this year.
Having had two breakfasts, lunch was out of the question. So when we got home again, my sisters and I would rush to one of our rooms and assess our new treasures. Haha, makes me smile when I think of what kids we were… And still are – I still do that :)
Christmas dinner was another event that used to happen at my grandmother’s place. Baked crab and/or prawn cocktail would kick dinner off. The main course boasted turkey with stuffing, sauce and cranberry sauce, slices of ham with stalks of asparagus rolled up in them, potato salad and god only remembers what else. When our plates were finally empty, they’d be taken away and we’d await……dessert.
The lights would go off and a hush would fall over the room. After a few minutes, in would walk my gran’s maid (my adopted 3rd grandmother), bearing a plum pudding drenched in brandy and spitting blue fire. We would all applaud her and my grandmother (the chef) and dig in, piling on generous shavings of delicious brandy butter onto the steaming pudding. Watching it melt and sink into the fruit…putting it in our mouths, even as hot as it was, because we were so impatient to savour it.
As kids, it was even yummier for us because we used to ‘help’ my gran make it. I still remember tables covered with different wooden chopping boards, each heaped with chopped fruit of all kinds – cherries, orange peel, raisins, you name it. They’d all be mixed together in this massive basin big enough to fit me and my sisters inside it (or that’s how big it seemed to us then) and we’d all look on in awe at the deliciously mysterious aromatic mixture. We’d all invariably end up with sore knuckles, thanks to my Achi who would rap our hands with her wooden mixing spoon if we tried to sneak a guilty finger into the bowl. She always relented in the end, though, because she’d purposely leave a generous amount of ‘left over’ mixture in the bowl for us to fall upon when she was done. And we would fall upon with a vengeance!
Then came the carol singing and champagne drinking and nila (sic?!) lighting. As little kids we were allowed one tantalizing sip of champagne and I fell in love with it from the first time I tasted it. As the family warblers, my sisters and I would have to sing a few songs on our own which we always did quite willingly. As we grew older this eagerness to perform faded quite quickly and was replaced by teenage sulks and embarrassment, but we always ended up doing it anyway.
At midnight we’d switch from Christmas to birthday mode – it was my elder sister’s birthday and we’d all chorus our ‘happy birthday’ to her and after that the crowds would part ways and it would be time to go home.
And that was my Christmas. After my insomnia of the night before I’d be totally exhausted but still terribly thrilled by the excitingness of it all. One of the things I miss most about being a kid is that unquenchable enthusiasm that would still be as powerful at the end of the day in spite of having received constant stimulus.
I would crawl into bed feeling wide awake, but would be asleep before I could count to ten.
This year, there’s none of that. We are all quite low that one very important member of our family – my big sister – won’t be with us for the first time so our rituals of the past have sort of shrunk to the bare minimum. Christmas breakfast may not even happen. Neither will the 2nd breakfast. Christmas dinner will be on the 24th. Church won’t be early morning but at 12 noon so that we can go with my gran who is feeling her age too much to wake up so early.
Today my sister and I put up some decorations around the house as an incomplete threesome and we felt the absence of our third counterpart terribly. My older sister was always the one who put on that Christmas CD, dusted out the decorations and rallied us all up to transform the house. As she grew up, she was the one who slowly took over the making of the Christmas pudding and, during the last few years, has been the one who made the dinner all on her own with a little help from her family of sous-chefs. I associate her with all things Christmassy and not having her here is so tangible. It’s like having a big sister-shaped hole following us around everywhere. I wish she was here – for selfish reasons mostly – because I need her calm advice, her cuddles that always make me feel better and that cheer she brings to everyone no matter what time of year it is, more than ever this year.
Luckily, I have my other sister here and she has been amazing for my state of mind and emotion in her own special way. We have our own language, she and I. She lets me deal with my issues on my own but I know cuddles and advice are a door knock away if I need them. And I need them now.
Writing this, I realized a huge part of my memories of Christmas is associated with my sisters and how we shared it together, almost as one little unit. Wow. I never thought of it that way before, and now that I have, it fills me with that funny warm feeling I’ve not been able to bring myself to feel this season.
It’s amazing how sisters can do that – This Christmas, I am so thankful for mine.