By Kulbhushan Kain
Yesterday was Christmas. For most of us, it centres around cakes, turkey, carols, wine, and Santa Claus! I was brought up in pretty Clement Town, a then suburb of Dehradun. It was predominantly a locality inhabited by Anglo Indians. The inhabitants lived in sprawling bungalows. Quite naturally, Clement Town had a great tradition of Christmas Celebrations.
As a child, I remember Miss Lumsden (on whose property a part of Graphic Era now stands) telling me in great detail about why Christmas is celebrated and about Santa Claus, a character who is portly, jolly, white-bearded with spectacles, wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs. He is said to bring children gifts on Christmas Eve of toys and candy or coal or nothing, depending on whether they are “naughty or nice”. He is said to accomplish this with the help of reindeer, who pull his sleigh through the snow.
“Who is Santa, Miss,” I asked her?
Miss Lumsden was born to teach and explained that Santa Claus is a legend based mostly on the life of Saint Nicholas, a real-life, historical follower of Jesus Christ –a man who gave generously to those in need. The name Santa Claus is the English form of the Dutch name for St Nicholas – Sinterklaas. Though the modern Santa Claus is associated with a world of fantasy, the historical St Nicholas was a godly man known for his charity and generosity.
After his death on December 6, a tradition of gift-giving was begun in his honor. It got linked to Christmas Celebrations.
It seemed natural to many Christians that a holiday celebrating “giving” would merge with the birth of Christ, considered the greatest gift ever given to the world.
But that’s not the only way Christmas is celebrated everywhere in the world.
Many kids who are well acquainted with Santa can consider themselves lucky they don’t live in Austria where a ghoulish creature called ‘Krampus’ takes to the streets during Christmas! The Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure in Central and Eastern Alpine folklore who, during the Christmas season, scares children who have misbehaved.
In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, hordes of city-dwellers make their way to mass on roller skates every year on Christmas morning! It’s even said that children will sleep with one lace from their skates tied around their toe, the other skate dangling from the window so that their friends can wake them up with a friendly tug on the lace.
In, Holland, in the days leading up to December 25th, Dutch children eagerly place their shoes by the fire in hopes that “Sinterklaas” will fill them with small gifts and treats in the night. Traditionally, carrots are left in the shoes for Sinterklaas’ faithful steed, a white horse named Amerigo.
One of Ukraine’s favorite festive traditions is not one for those with a fear of creepy crawlies! The Ukrainians use decorations that mimic the natural formation of spiders’ webs shimmering with dew.
The tradition goes back to a folktale about a poor widow who could not afford to decorate a tree for her children. Legend has it that spiders in the house took pity on the family and spun beautiful webs all over the tree, which the children awoke to find on Christmas morning. Spiders’ webs are also considered to be lucky in Ukrainian culture.
In Italy, according to folklore, an old woman named Befana visits all the children to fill their stockings with candy and leave them presents if they’ve been good. Just like Father Christmas, Befana enters through the chimney and is left treats by the children who live there – typically wine and local delicacies.
In Norwegian folklore, Christmas Eve is the day when mischievous spirits and witches take to the skies for mischief and general tomfoolery. As witches often use brooms as their preferred mode of transportation, it’s tradition for Norwegian families to hide away any sweeping sticks where the witches won’t be able to find them.
In South Africa, in one of the more unusual Christmas traditions, fried Emperor Moth caterpillars are served as a meal. The Pine Tree Emperor Moth, or Christmas caterpillar, is covered in very festive hues – giving all who swallow a little extra luck in the coming year!
There are different ways of celebrating Christmas. However, in my home, Christmas is celebrated in a way best illustrated at a party in 1973 in Clement Town in Uncle Sumra’s house. Uncle Sumra was married to a Christian – Winnie Aunty – and lived a few hundred metres from our house. They were our non-biological parents.
Uncle had hunted partridges and we were served Patridge stew, plum cake, and lots of wine! A Christmas tree kept winking in a corner. The gramophone (yes gramophone) then took over. As the wine took its toll – the dancing became vigorous and fast to the music of “Jingle Bells”, and sedate and soulful, to the tune of “Silent Night”!
Post celebration, after hugs and wishing everyone “Merry Christmas”, Uncle Sumra’s Landrover refused to start and he decided to walk us back! On reaching our gate, I told him that since he was going to be alone on his walk back – I would walk him back! And once home – he decided to walk me back! This alternated, till Winnie Auntie finally decided to walk me back along with Uncle Sumra and escorted him back home!
No one walked back home alone!
Merry Christmas Winnie Auntie and Uncle Sumra – wherever you are.
And Merry Christmas to all of you who are reading this!
(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at email@example.com)