‘Tis the night before Christmas

December 24th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Christmas, India No Comments »

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…and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even Alfie, the school hamster, on his annual visit to us over the Christmas holidays. It is very still and very quiet; the only sound is that of the tapping of the keys on my keyboard, and an occasional grunt from the central heating. Outside my window, the streetlamp shines yellow through the thickening fog. There is not a soul in sight, not a man, not a woman, not a child. Not even a cat, not even a fox, not even a bat. Perhaps, if I stay very quiet, I’ll hear the bells on Santa’s reindeer - the thought comes unbidden to my mind, and I have to stop myself from peering hopefully up into the sky.

I don’t celebrate Christmas any more, not since I grew up, not since I moved to London. I do not like the cold and the damp dark of winter, the sunless days, the foggy nights. The frenetic activity that accompanies the ‘silly season’ wears me out, and all I want to do is snuggle into a burrow of blankets and hibernate the winter away, till sun and warmth return once more.

So, why am I checking the sky for Santa, I ask myself?

Because my children do, even though they’re ‘all growed up’? Because I love the sound of sleigh bells? Because I like the idea of an old man in a red suit and white beard flying through the night, with a sackful of toys for the world’s children? Or because I’ve always waited for Santa, ever since I was a child myself, and some things do not change?

Christmas for me was not always so dull. I grew up in Calcutta, a city that celebrates all festivals with great enthusiasm and good cheer. Christmas, I remember, was no exception. The city would break out into a glad frenzy of music and dance and theatre, of late nights and good food, and chocolates and cakes and presents wrapped in pretty red paper. The central circle in New Market would be full of fake Christmas trees of all sizes, covered with tinsel and cottonwool snow. Tiny cottonwool Santas with long beards and floppy red hats would be on sale, to be bought individually or by the box.

The Midnight Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral, or even in my school chapel, would be thronged not only by members of the Christian community, but by Calcuttans belonging to all religious communities. We’d wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same joy that we wished each other ‘Shubho Bijoya’ or ‘Id Mubarak.’

The last time I spent Christmas in Calcutta was twenty years ago. I don’t know if those fake trees and cottonwool Santas are still being sold in New Market, and whether Park Street is still lit up the way it used to be when I was small. I hear though, that the Calcutta spirit is still alive, and that Calcuttans of all shapes, sizes and religious hues still wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same glad happiness of my childhood. In a world that is becoming more and more divided by religion every day, it is reassuring to know that the spirit of secularism has not died out entirely.

I know that there is no Santa, no reindeers flying through a starlit sky, and that if I look out of my window again, I will see only swirling fog. But I do know that good wishes there are in plenty - for peace on earth and good will to all.

So - Merry Christmas, everyone!

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