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Why December 25 is so special

Christmas is all about togetherness, traditions and joy. Five families share their festive stories with HT.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2006 15:52 IST

The Christmas spirit is about sharing and loving

For career consultant and filmmaker Usha Alberquerque and her family, Christmas is the time to get together at the best place of them all – Goa. By the 22nd of December at the latest, Usha, her husband Michael, and their children – graphic designer Nisha and architect Rahul – are deep into a family party that starts when they arrive and carries on non-stop till the new year.

Lunch on Christmas Day is very special. “It is a family affair with my cousins and my parents who come down from Pune. Everybody looks forward to the roast chicken and roast turkey. The main attractions, however, are Goan specialities like pulao and vindaloo,” says the former newsreader.

“Besides Christmas cake, we make a variety of other goodies like bebinca – a traditional Goan sweet made of eggs and coconut milk. That is a must at this time.”

In the evening, the Alberquerques dash off for the Christmas dance. “It’s great fun because we get to meet so many friends,” says Usha.

On the rare occasions that Usha and her family cannot make it to Goa, they celebrate Christmas with the same fervour in Delhi, where they live. “The house is decorated and looks very Christmassy.We attend midnight mass and sing carols. Several friends join us in the celebration,” says Usha. “With everybody moving out and living away from each other, it is only occasions like these that actually give one the feel of loving and sharing in the true spirit of Christmas.”

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The bigger the family group is, the better

Though every Christian family in India has its own Christmas story to tell, some traditions are shared. Setting up the crib and tree, for instance. Midnight mass in their Sunday best.

Carol singing followed by Christmas cake and wine or coffee at home. The gleeful unwrapping of presents with the litany of ‘this was just what I wanted’ and ‘thank you’. Then to bed, only to get up bleary-eyed for lunch with the extended family. Come evening, friends and neighbours drop in.

Going by his account of Christmases past, it was not much different at the home of George Menezes, writer, activist and one-time IAF man and very successful human resources manager.

But one Christmas tradition stands out for George, who is one of seven siblings. That is the one that was followed at his ancestral house in the island of Divar in Goa.

“Whenever our family gathered in Goa for Christmas, one day was reserved for story-telling. All the children, grandchildren, first and second cousins gathered in the balcao of our ancestral house and were told stories of the past and plans of the future by the elders. We even have tape recordings of those sessions. It was a sort of a history taking. Regretfully, it doesn’t happen too often now because everyone is so spread out.”

“Christmas was always an opportunity for the family to get together,” adds Thecla, George’s wife. “The bigger the family group is, the better. That’s when you have the most fun,” says Christophe, their son.

Thecla admits, however, that things changed when their son and daughter Anjali grew up and moved out. “In the run up to Christmas, I used to make the cake myself. I made a lot of cake those days as well as goodies like kul-kuls, rose cookies, coconut fudge, chocolate toffee, neuris and marzipan. Now, it’s not the same. There is no motivation since there is no one to eat it, plus we have all become very health conscious.”

Anyone who has painstakingly converted a mound of dough bit by bit into the addictive kul-kuls will know that goodie-making is an exercise in family togetherness.

George vouches for that. “The whole family used to sit with forks and sterilised combs to make them. We loved the enjoyment of it all.” For the uninitiated, kul-kuls are small shell-shaped snacks made by flattening tiny bits of a dough comprising flour, sugar, ghee and semolina on combs or forks and then rolling them off.

Does it bother George that Christmas family traditions developed over the years are being abandoned because everyone is too busy to follow them? Not in the least. “If these traditions change or are reduced it doesn’t make any difference to the fact that Jesus was born 2,000 years ago. Christmas will come and Christmas will go, but Jesus is born every day during Mass,” he says.

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'At midnight, I feel the real essence of Christmas'

When former VJ Maria Goretti was little, Christmas celebrations in her family of four began from the first Sunday of December. Now that she is a mother with a home of her own, celebrations begin from the second week of December when she puts up the Christmas tree a day before her birthday – something her small son, Zeke, thoroughly enjoys.

“He’s too young to know what is happening, but he loves it,” says Maria. “When I was a kid, my sister and I were mostly responsible for decking out the tree. Though my parents helped of course.”

Christmas for young Maria meant sweets. Lots and lots of sweets. “Delectable delights like milk cream, marzipan, date rolls, kul-kuls, neuris and, of course, cake…” Most of the sweets were made at home by her mother, mainly for distribution among friends and neighbours.

But since Maria and her sister generally ate up all that she produced way before Christmas, Maria’s mother had to make the sweets in two batches. Everything in the Goretti Christmas celebrations was homemade.

Maria’s mother made not just the sweets and the Christmas meals, but also her daughters’ party clothes. “Lovely frilly frocks or gowns,” remembers Maria. “And we’d feel like princesses in them.”

But that is one tradition that Maria has not brought into her own home. If Arshad Warsi, Maria’s husband, were even half as helpful as Maria’s father was with her mother, she might try her hand at the ‘homemade’ tradition. “But he is never really at home,” she complains. “This time too he’ll probably be back just in time to attend the Christmas mass.”

For Maria, midnight mass is when she feels the true essence of Christmas.

“As children, we would really look forward to the mass,” she says. “It was thrilling to go out for it and then hurry back home in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.” Yes, she did believe in Santa Claus. “We always gave Santa three choices when we told him what we wanted,” she laughs. “So if he didn’t get our first choice, he could look for the second or the third.”

Christmas lunch was always a feast. “The essential thing about a Christmas lunch was and continues to be the fact that every dish is cooked at home,” says Maria. “My mother cooked some great roasted chicken, mutton chops and vindaloo among many other things. And when my father’s brother stayed with us for Christmas, the celebrations doubled. He treated us to roasted suckling pig. And we’d make our toasts with fine blackberry wine that my dad would specially make for Christmas.

Though we children got only about one centimeter of a sip!” All that has changed now. Maria’s sister lives in Chicago, so shared Christmases are rare. And Maria has a husband and son and a Christmas lunch of her own to make. “Things have changed, but we still make the best of it all,” she smiles. “I guess that’s the true Christmas spirit.”

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'This celebration is like an anchor in our lives'

For the family of Member of Parliament Margaret Alva, Christmas is like a Formula One pit stop – an opportunity to take a break from the maddening racetrack of their lives, re-group as a family, recoup their energy and replenish body and soul till the next pit stop arrives a year later.

“As long as I can remember, Christmas has meant getting together at our parents’ place latest by the 24th evening,” says Niret Alva, the oldest of the four Alva siblings. “We spend two whole days together with the entire family.”

Not only does this give the otherwise extremely busy family members time to catch up with each other, it also helps strengthen the family bond.

“Things are changing so fast these days that this kind of a celebration of tradition is the only thing that actually anchors our lives now. All of us have demanding professions, so it is really nice to spend some time with the family just like we used to when we were kids,” says Niret.

The Alvas start their Christmas celebrations with midnight mass at New Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. When they return home, as the grown-ups celebrate with homemade wine and cake, the children attack their Christmas gifts with glee.

“The elders in the family buy gifts for the kids and stack them in a box under the Christmas tree.

When the kids return from mass, they are really excited to find the box of goodies there. That’s the most exciting part,” says Niret.

In the morning, the entire family spends time together before sitting down for a traditional Christmas lunch. “Unfortunately, my sister Manira, her husband Joe and their two kids Tavish and Zoya won’t be able to join us this time,” says Niret.

Most Christmas lunches are not for the faint-hearted and the lavish spread at the Alva residence which comprises mainly Mangalorean vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes will not disappoint foodies.

“Christmas lunch is like an open house session with several of our friends joining us. The festive fare consists of specialities like yellow rice, special dal, pork, chicken and a host of desserts. After this lavish lunch, everybody lazes around before proceeding to their separate parties in the evening,” says Niranjan Alva.

For the Alva clan (the youngest member Manini is just a few weeks old), these two days spent with the family are very special. No wonder they don’t want things to change, ever. As Niret says: “We have always celebrated Christmas in a very traditional way and that’s the way we hope to keep it.”

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'The Christmas tableau we put together is all about bonding'

Every December, a small bungalow in Mazgaon, Mumbai, turns into a beehive of activity, as a merry band of family and friends turn bamboo, paper, cloth, wire and lights into a Christmas spectacular.

For over 40 years, footballer Melwyn Oliver and his two sons Gavin and Keenan, Arnalado Fernandes, Savio Rodrigues, Benedict D’Souza, Agnelo D’Souza have gathered at Derrick Valladores’s bungalow, to handcraft their Christmas tree, star and crib from scratch. This year, they are building a seven-foot tree, a crib (complete with running water to form a waterfall), and a 10-cornered star of bamboo and lights.

Such detailed attention to their Christmas tableau means that the group of family and friends starts their preparations as early as December 2 or 3. “That’s when we decide our theme, which follows the one announced by the Church,” says Valladores.

Once the theme is fixed, work begins on the Monday following December 5. “We work at night, every night,” says Valladores. “We generally start work around 9.30 pm and go on till midnight. Sometimes, we go out for dinner and then come back to work. Other times, people bring food over. It’s about bonding together rather than just working.”

All working members of the group pool in money to cover expenses, and anything left over goes into hosting a picnic in the new year.

Besides creating their Christmas masterpieces, the group also finds time to spread Christmas cheer – they go carolling every year. “We visit each lane in our zone, and have also performed at the houses of senior citizens who live alone,” says Oliver.

Christmas Eve and the 25th find the group frantically putting the finishing touches to their tableau, exchanging sweets and meeting for drinks and cake at each other’s houses. That’s also when the ‘project’ has its grand unveiling: neighbours, friends and others come by to see what the group has created.

The group’s creativity and grand festive spirit is attested to by the fact that they have won competitions hosted by their parish in the Christmas crib and star categories. “Every year, people always ask us anxiously if we are making something,” says a proud Valladores.

The next big occasion is New Year’s Eve,when another motley group of family and friends gather to waltz, jive, ceremoniously burn an Old Man, cut a cake and enjoy a fireworks display “sharp at midnight”.

Both parties are held in the backyard of Valladores’ cottage,where, as Theresa Oliver, wife of Melwyn, puts it, “A real homely atmosphere is created. You wear what you feel comfortable in and we always have a great time.”

Perhaps the best testament for the group is that its younger members enthusiastically join in with their parents and parents’ friends. “I never feel the urge to go anywhere else to celebrate at this time of year,” says 23-year-old Gavin Oliver. “There’s no reason to go elsewhere,” adds 30-year-old Savio Rodrigues.

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First Published: Dec 24, 2006 15:21 IST