Tonight I set up the Christmas tree. It’s a small artificial one since I can’t bring myself to buy one of the firs shipped in to Hawaii from the mainland a good month ahead of the holiday. I know that those trees are identical to the ones lined up for sale in parking lots and Church courtyards across the country. but they somehow lack the fragrance I remember from my childhood. And I need to shake the snow off their branches onto the doorstep before hauling them into the house. I’m a stickler for tradition.
But I must have a tree … or a reasonable fascimile of one. Although I’ve drifted away from the Church, I celebrate Christ’s birthday every year by pulling out my old book of Christmas carols and stringing lights on my tree. I sing the traditional songs. My favorites are “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel”. And I insist that it’s a CHRISTMAS tree, not a Hanukkah tree, or a Kwanzaa tree. For this occasion, I’m quite content to divorce Druid rites and practices from this particular symbol.
Christmas is my link to my childhood, my family and a tradition I was born into. And for me a reminder not to forget the message of Christ even as I so deplore the growth of a morphed evangelism which denies salvation to those of other faiths. I like to think of Christ as a hippie, a man preaching love and peace at a time when both were not a feature of that ancient and harsh society. The image of Jesus overturning the money lenders’ tables in the temple of Jerusalem is a cherished one for me. I love rebels and iconoclasts. So I sing the carols with considerable gusto and deck my tree with as many twinkling lights as it will support.
However, not all Christmases are equal. During the twenty years I lived in India, there were several sad ones, when my longing for the idyllic Christmases I remembered in Canada was almost unbearable. My resources and imagination were often stretched to the maximum, but somehow each year I would find some small memento and cling to it. A crêche set up in a Church courtyard in the Anglo-Indian section of the city. A few yards of cheap tinsel and a dozen glass balls which I found in a little market behind the fishing village in Juhu where there was a small Christian community. Even the slightest drop in temperature and a cool evening breeze drifting inland from the Arabian Sea could somehow carry the faintest hint of frost. If I focused hard enough.
But one Christmas loomed over me for several months, casting an ominous shadow which refused to disperse, no matter what I did or how hard I concentrated. My sister in Canada was in the final year of her studies at McGill and had developed terrible spinal problems. Struggling with constant pain, she’d gained permission to attend her lectures while lying on a mattress at the back of the lecture hall. But no one seemed to be able to diagnose exactly what was wrong. Months went by and I got very little news of her condition.
In those days, telephone calls from India were not only terribly expensive, they were almost impossible to put through. The miracle of the Internet was yet to be born and communication was almost entirely by post. Which was also unreliable. Letters usually arrived intact if somewhat belatedly, but all parcels would be opened and the contents pilfered. Eventually we agreed not to send gifts at all since it was so heartbreaking to see the torn wrappings and the little personal notes ripped apart
So when December appeared on my calendar, this particular year I was in no mood to celebrate. The boxes of tinsel and chipped glass balls remained in storage under my bed. The only tape I had of Christmas music was pushed behind the book shelf. I didn’t want any reminders. I was going to skip Christmas entirely. Which in Bombay wasn’t hard to do if I avoided the fishing village and Bandra, the “Anglo” enclave a few miles away from my home.
But then the letter came a few days before December 25th. I opened it and realized immediately that my sister had sent it from her hospital bed, a few hours before an exploratory operation on her spine. ” I wanted to send you Christmas greetings,” she wrote. “I’ll be remembering all the good times we had together, all the perfect Christmases we had …” Then she closed by telling me not to worry, she was sure she’d be okay and that she’d asked her nurse to mail the letter to me.
When my husband came home. I was still sitting on the balcony with the letter in my hands and the tears streaming down my face. My dear sister …. not knowing what lay ahead of her or how she would emerge from that surgery … even with that terrible fear hovering over her and mere hours before the operation. Even then she’d taken time to write and arrange for the letter to reach me before Christmas. Even then.
I was unbearably touched.
A few days later, my husband said quietly, ” Let’s go to Lonavla for Christmas this year. It’s a hard time for you and we’ll have a little change. And it’s cooler and will be peaceful there. We can just relax and forget about everything for a while … ”
He knew I loved this pretty little hill station which was nestled in the ghats, a range of small mountains east of Bombay. There was only one hotel, which consisted of five or six tiny bungalows almost entirely hidden by lush tropical vegetation. It was a favorite respite from the hustle of Bombay and we had spent several mini vacations there.
( Photo courtesy of Arjun Singh Kulkarni)
So we agreed that we’d leave on Christmas Eve right after he came home from the factory. I packed a few changes of clothes and some snacks and told the cook he could take the next two days off. It was almost five in the evening by the time we set out on the seventy mile drive, wending our way through evening traffic to the outskirts of the city and finally onto the narrow rutted two lane “highway” snaking its way over the ghats to Lonavla.
For the first half hour or so, the drive was pleasant. The usual obstructions … cows, hay wagons and large wildly decorated trucks were mercifully sparse and most villagers had retreated to their homes leaving the dusty road almost empty. Until we rounded the first of the hills and suddenly came to a dead halt. Looking ahead, we could see a line of trucks, wagons and a few cars nuzzled against each other like a huge snake resting on the flank of the mountain. A sleeping snake or a moribund one, since not a vehicle was moving.
We sat immobile for a good forty five minutes until the news was passed down the line, the driver of each vehicle informing the operator of the one behind him that a truck had plummeted off the road into a ravine about a mile ahead and that the police were on their way. “Arre Sahib … there is such much takleef ahead and it is better to go back now when you can turn on the side. Ahead is no more road for turning. It is getting most narrow on all sides …” the truck driver ahead warned us.
It was clear to us, that he was quite right. The unpaved shoulder of the road was definitely smaller than it had been even a mile or so back. We looked at each other for only a moment before my husband turned onto the shoulder and we began our journey back to the city. As we slowly steered our way back towards Bombay, I opened my window to call out to oncoming cars …. “Bahut Takleef … ek lorry accident …”
By the time we reached the city, I was so disapppointed that I found it hard to talk around the lump in my throat. I knew my husband had tried so hard to lighten my mood and didn’t want to risk that lump exploding into sobs. So I pretended to nod off to sleep, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears gathering around my eyes.
But about half a mile from home, as we turned onto the Juhu beach road, my husband suddenly slowed down and steered his car onto the sand. “Look, there’s still one ice cream stand open. Let’s get a couple of cones …”
When I didn’t stir, he opened the door and set out across the sand. I peered out at a small speck of light, surprised that one of the tiny stalls was still open for business at such a late hour. Then I closed my eyes again and leaned back against the window.
Suddenly I heard a scratching sound against my door. It seemed like several tiny paws trying to scramble into the car. I rolled the window down and looked out. There was a branch or something which had blown up against the car and was being tossed about by the wind. I reached out to push it away and saw that it was a coconut branch. The stiff woody stems of the flower spathe which bear the coconut flowers and eventually the fruit itself. One of the coconut water vendors on Juhu beach had cut off the coconuts earlier in the day and tossed the branch onto the beach.
I looked closer and there was something familiar about that shape. Like the spines of a tree without leaves … or needles.
There it was. My Christmas tree. I reached out of the window and pulled it in. As I turned it from side to side in my lap visualizing how I would arrange the lights, my husband returned with two cones. As he handed one to me, he caught my smile and then looking down at the discarded coconut stem, he wagged his head slowly from side to side and murmured … ” I don’t think I’m going to ask ….”
But as we pulled into our driveway, we were both lapping at our ice cream cones. and laughing.
It took me almost two hours to set up my little tree I wriggled under the bed to retrieve the tinsel and glass balls and finally located the parts of the metal Christmas tree stand and managed to screw it together. The Christmas carol tape was rescued from its limbo behind my book shelf and as I balanced the star topper on the longest stalk, I was singing along with it. Finally I stood back and surveyed the tree. I leaned against my dining table to appreciate the full splendor of it and out of the corner of my eye, spotted an envelope and a folded newspaper. My cook Kishan had brought the day’s mail up after I left.
I reached for the envelope. A Canadian stamp featuring a loon announced it was from home and my hands were shaking as I tore it open.
Sissy had made her own Christmas card for me featuring a silly fat Santa with a huge bandage around his belly and his feet encased in orthopedic shoes. But he had a grin on his face and was tossing his cane into the air. Then she’d scrawled OKAY in large red letters underneath the jolly old gent.
Teetering between tears and laughter, I held the letter over my heart as I looked across at my little coconut tree, shimmering in the corner of my living room.
And suddenly it was a perfect Xmas …