Monday, December 10, 2007

XMas's of the Past

Christmas has to be the saddest time of each year for me, as the ghosts of Christmases past (another time, another place) come back to haunt me. I admit to shedding a tear now and then, as my mind goes back to those carefree days of my childhood and teens, spent ‘upcountry’ in Sri Lanka, where my father was stationed as an engine driver.

I recall, that for months ahead, there was preparation for Christmas. The houses were all white washed, painted and got ready for that one day ‘when the world stood still’. In the meantime we would be taken to the tailors who measured us for those special hand-made clothes. The shoe maker would be next in line for his bespoke products. What a build-up to Christmas.

The special trip to Colombo made by my parents to purchase all those special Christmas goodies, including a box of fireworks for each of us from ‘Fireworks Palace’, the Christmas fare from ‘Elephant House’, which always had to include an Yule Log. The making of the Christmas Cake was a major event in every household, the finished product had to be down at ‘Salgado Bakery’ in town by 6.00am on the day of baking.

A long queue of Cakes for baking from each household would be seen lining up at the bakery. As soon as the day’s bread was baked, and the ovens still hot the cakes had to go into those giant ovens. The baker would gently ease each cake pan in to the oven on a giant paddle, where they were placed cheek by jowl inside the oven. The baked product had to be collected by 9.00am and trundled off home.

As the day drew closer the excitement heightened, it was the culinary department of each home that worked overtime, all those puddings, sweet meats, pickles, chutneys that had to be made. The turkey’s and chickens prepared, the hams cured. Most homes made the traditional milk wine, others made ginger beer, almond liquor, crème-de-menthe etc.

‘Christmas trees’ were brought home by each railway man from either Nanu Oya or Nuwara Eliya. These had to be set up in a vantage point in the home and decorated with many seasonal ornaments and lit up with twinkling jets or even candle lights. The homes were also festooned with streamers, bunches of balloons etc. Baskets of flowers and vegetables would come down, again from Nanu Oya, Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela, etc. The homes would smell sweet from the aroma of the arum lilies, the oxide daisies, gerberas etc.

The baskets of veggies would include cabbages, lettuce, spring onions, leeks, carrot, beetroot, cauliflower, beans, broccoli, pumpkin etc, all fresh from the ‘up country’ market gardens. Mum would be always busy preparing so many of her specials – Turkish delight, stuffed dates, meringues, pumpkin preserve (puhul dosi). Her cold meat platters were the envy of many of my friends. So was her fruit punch and the hibiscus punch she made on some occasions.

Come Christmas Eve, a gentle quiet would pervade the neighbourhood, awaiting that special moment. Almost everything that had to be prepared, cooked, roasted and basted was done and ready. Clothes ironed and laid out, shoes spic and span, the home was aglow. We counted the hours before we set off to Church.

Midnight would find most families in Church partaking in the solemn celebration of the Birth of the Christ Child. When the ‘Gloria In Excelsis’ was intoned the Church bells would peel out to the town that the ‘Saviour had been born’. Once Mass was over, there would be so much meeting and greeting that it would take quite some time before we begin our way back home.

This scenario was repeated time and time again, no matter where my father was stationed whether at Kandy, Matale, Nanu Oya, Kadugannawa, Nawalapitiya or Bandarawela (these were the towns we called HOME – Nawalapitiya on two occasions for a total of 12 years)

Christmas Day, was one of continued enjoyment and merry making, and of partaking of the majestic spread on the dining table, enjoying all one’s presents and gifts. I still remember, the No 5 Mecano Set, (as a nine-year-old) I received at Christmas. We called on friends, had friends call on us. Members of the public utilities who served us through the year, dropped in for their ‘Christmas Bonus’ – the postman, the baker, the garbage collector etc.

By night fall one was completely exhausted, but the best was yet to come, that was when we opened our boxes of fireworks and lit them all – the squibs, rockets, golden rains, Catherine wheels, Chinese mini crackers and more. The air reeked of a burning, acrid smell, but who cared. It was Christmas. The weather ‘upcountry’ always contributed to the season, when more often than not a cool zither of a breeze would prevail and a ‘scotch mist’ would settle in.

It is these memories that bring a tear to the eye, to recall the days gone by and to think our grandchildren will never enjoy such times. One has everything one wants today, Christmas fare could be savoured every day of the year. Gifts and presents are only for there commercial worth. Gone are the days of caroling, friendships, camaraderie, bonhomie that prevailed.

The magic of it all, was that the less we had, the more we enjoyed. That was the special gift of the times.

Victor Melder, Melbourne, Australia, Mon Dec 10 2007

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