The International Writers Magazine: Celebrating Christmas
A Requiem for a Sri Lankan Christmas
Jude C Perera
There are multiple layers of memories inscribed in this flashback. It’s more like an essential dose of therapy. For the past two decades, may be more, I have been haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.
Quite unrelentingly I might add. But I kept the shame under wraps.
I was forced to journey through my past, especially the Christmases, forced to confront and understand some harsh realities. Such as that absurd rush to trade off the known for the unknown, to barter innocence with commitments. That irrational thirst to grow up. But then commonsense condoles, how was I to know?
I sometimes wonder if there is anything even remotely positive in being nostalgic. I have grave doubts, especially when it teases the person (the writer) to play Boney-M’s Christmas carols in his car stereo for the most part of the year. Perhaps it is a longing that has matured since I left my home sands almost sixteen years ago. When I left one ex-British colony to settle down in another, from Sri Lanka to Melbourne.
It was the early eighties. School closed around the first week of December, I went to Saint Joseph’s College in Colombo, one of the imperial jewels in Catholic academia. Primary school sunk in to delightful chaos, we sent paper rockets at each other, drew caricatures of the teachers on the blackboard. School wound up around ten in the morning. School report cards containing damning evidence of our final term’s academic and extracurricular performances were handed out the same day. Some guys decamped to the playground to play softball cricket, or just to measure up their impending liberty. Yes it was a good feeling. Soon the parents trickled in, and one by one we trickled out. The first phase of my Christmas was about to commence. But there was something distinct in the air, even before the last day at school, and that was the weather. The humid gave way to the cool, clean blue skies and cold nights. Hardly tropical, this was the first clue, it was something like an island Spring.
The shops and shopping centers were festooned with decorations, pavements were littered with Christmas goodies, it was hard to walk without stepping on a street hawker and his wares. And then there were the fireworks: sky rockets, roman candles, crackers, sparklers, Catherine wheels and other varieties exploded in to view out of nowhere. Radios and televisions belted yuletide favourites. It was a unique display for a predominantly Buddhist country, perhaps commercial opportunism may have inspired some of it. Not that anyone cared. It was a time to forget troubles, even spending above their means for the poor, and facing the music later. But for a painfully brief period they enjoyed.
We enjoyed a mix of conventional traditions and some that were peculiar to us. First the house had to receive its annual face lift. It was a common story across most Catholic and Christian households. Floors were polished with mansion wax, walls and windows cleaned and re-painted. The garden was swept regularly, and unwanted acquisitions were thrown away. My father made sure that we kids (myself and my brother) would take an active interest in the manual effort required. I would rather enjoy the end result than join in the labour. Plants were repotted. My father had won admiration for preserving a magnificent garden in Dalugama (approx: 12 km’s from Colombo) where we lived. Our maternal grandparents who lived in their ancestral home in the same garden shared our enthusiasm for the holidays. I sadly lost my Paternal Grandfather when I was a mere six months. The lost fragrance of a kiss he had given me is all that I have. My Paternal Grandmother followed within a decade of his passing.
The cleanup and makeover went on for several days. Then it was time for the full day shopping excursion in to Colombo: the capital. There was the optional second day on offer as well if the wish list was not covered in one day. The weather maintained its charm. My mother and Aunt (mother’s sister) shopped and shopped, for Christmas gifts, cake ingredients, cake wrappers, Christmas cards, new clothes, the list was always a work in progress. My father did not complain, we did not complain. Bookstores were next on the itinerary, this time round entertainment was the central theme. Enid Blyton fired our imagination as kids; I still have some of the stockpile of Famous Fives, Secret Sevens and Five Find Outers which I had collected. I only hope I could pass this literary legacy to my five year old at some point.
Lunch was long overdue and we were sufficiently famished to tuck in to a sumptuous Biriyani at The Buhari Hotel, a restaurant famed for this signature dish. Savoury rice packed with mutton, an egg, chicken and mint sambol all infused with a divine cocktail of condiments fetched heaven for the taste buds. We were tired but raring for the second half. Toys lay in wait. We wound up finally at the fireworks shops. “Alidon” was a local brand that had a sound reputation, we stocked up on all varieties ranging from crackers, sky rockets, roman candles to sparklers. We returned physically spent, but strangely in high spirits.
Then came the serious business of making Christmas cake, my mother and aunt set down to it in earnest. It was an art, a labour of love. The recipe was in their heads and a certain subtlety of sense which printed paper could never convey dished out the perfect measurements. Raisins, ginger preserve, candid peel, cherries, raisins, essences and cashew nuts baptised by some brandy, made a wickedly sensual cake mix. My grandmother would preside over proceedings. I and my brother offered our unsolicited approval by carrying out daring extraction missions in to this irresistible mix. The joint brains behind the operation rapped our knuckles with light hearted sternness. Some more steps got in the way. The end product would be cut in to small rectangles and lovingly wrapped in the colourful festive paper and ribbons they had purchased. These would be counted and stored away for visitors and family, counted because certain thieves with critical intel roamed the house. But it was a fascination that ebbed soon after the “visits” started. Christmas visits served as a foil to the excitement we had. We visited neighbours, relatives and borderline friends, and ate their Christmas cakes, sipped their drinks and wished them ‘Compliments of the Season’. They reciprocated within a short space of time. Too short. We only met some of these characters annually. It was not necessarily a bad thing.
Homemade King Coconut (Thembilli) wine would be next on my mother’s agenda. King Coconut is a sweeter variant of the coconut fruit and is considered a divine healer in Ayurvedic teachings. It is a first class antacid. The result was a sweet magic potion. As kids we enjoyed an annual reprieve to taste a few sips of this healthy elixir. Another gastronomical royalty was homemade sausages (Lingus). Minced pork and beef seasoned with yet another intuitive cocktail of spices and stuffed in to cleaned cow gut. Another meticulous process and an undisputed “Perera” tradition introduced by my Grandfather. When fried and served, it was a sinful addiction. My mother and Uncle (in Melbourne) still preserve the tradition, and he has tried hard to pass the baton to us, without success.
The second phase fired off with the arrival of cousins and extended family. They streamed in from various suburbs and cities. Paternal Uncles and Aunts, relatives from the once imperial kingdom of Anuradhapura and a Grand uncle with his grandchildren. They increased our numbers to almost twenty-five souls. It was a plague of delightful anarchy and chaos. My cousins outranked my age by at least seven years, but they were in the mood to forego the age gap. The other kids were junior to me, and brimming with untapped energy. I can still hear the noise in my head, in my heart, I am not exactly sure where. It is painful.
The next ten days leading up to Christmas eve and Christmas day were a deliriously confused blur. The girls would use the swing my father had set up, we boys would play soft ball cricket, and alternate between carrom and badminton. The adults and my older cousins who were on the precipice of adulthood played a card game called, 304: a trick taking game popular in Sri Lanka. The cycle would only get interrupted as our mothers called a cessation for lunch. It would require repeated persuasions. Lunch would be quite a lavish affair with savoury rices and rich curries blatantly loaded with calories. A short respite to digest the meal and the entertainment would resume. Some of the adults would enjoy an afternoon siesta and blame it on the tropical heat. It would continue until dusk, then the fireworks would make an appearance. Lights would be dimmed for better theatrics, and the show would begin. Light and noise would take over the heavens and the ground below. The younger kids (including the writer) would race around with sparklers in hand like giant fireflies on steroids. The noise increased exponentially as the big day loomed closer.
Dinner would soon follow, as heavy handed as the lunch. Sleep was a necessary deterrent. The entertainment would resume after breakfast the following day, and continue with more fervor. It was action caught in a vicious loop. Just to spice things up even more we would make tracks to an open area close by to fly our kites. Kites have since become an endangered species. And then there were the balloons. Helium pumps were rare. We used caustic soda combined with aluminum strips to produce the gas. It was toxic business and hands and eyes had to be protected. Then we would pin jokes, mostly messages of goodwill and send them off. To see them vanish out of sight gave us a thrilling sense of accomplishment.
My father pulled out his priceless collection of Christmas oldies. Jim Reeves, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and the King himself: Elvis Presley, serenaded our property with their golden and ageless voices. He would mix them up with their Sinhalese counterparts as well. We dreamt of White Christmases inspired by Boney M under perfectly blue and sunny skies. I mourned the passing of their charismatic male lead from Aruba, Bobby Farrell in 2010.
As we dissipated our endless energies outdoors, the senior citizens reminisced, milking the most out of their decibels. My grandparents and grand uncle engaged in endless conversations on what had been. My Grandmother would stir the pot and rub in any historical inaccuracies with a wicked wink. Topics ranged from the Great War and cricket down to juicy family tidbits. My Grand Uncle was a living cricket encyclopedia and held the illustrious record as the longest serving correspondent to the Wisden Almanac (Cricket bible) at the time of his death in 2008 (aged 92). He was a painfully thin and restless soul who could not keep his bum in one place for a minute. And a fiercely loyal bachelor. My Grandfather was mostly confined to his armchair after losing part of his mobility to a stroke. He was one of the first commissioned officers in the newly formed Ceylonese Army (Post British), and was popularly known as Captain Perera in our neighborhood. He was accorded a colourful military burial replete with the traditional three round gun salute when he passed away in 1988 (aged 80).
I sometimes listened in to some of those historical snippets with avid interest, but did not record any. Of course I expected them to live forever and I was hatefully immature to gauge the true worth of this precious information that was exchanged so casually. I fear that I may have lost some of that data forever.
Soon the business end of the season was in sight. Time for the Christmas tree. Cypress trees offered the most favoured choice with their perfect height, conical shape and fragrance. My Father received some of the best from the central highlands. We gave away the spare trees to our neighbours. The decorations were fetched from storage and we had loads of fun decorating it. We still have the star of Bethlehem with its cascading tail that christened the tree. Differing artistic proclivities led to non-violent conflict which required frequent adult intervention and mediation. But it got done. Then the lights were stringed along the branches and we waited impatiently for dusk. It was a spectacle in the dark.
The fireworks reached a crescendo, it was Christmas Eve. The mad rush for the washrooms for last minute showers and the scramble for the iron. Midnight Mass was a big affair. We looked our best, our parents made sure of that. We tumbled in to a van one of my Uncles had and my Father’s car, it required two visits to transport the whole lot. My Grandfather, Granduncle and his grandchildren stayed behind. Saint Francis De Sales: our parish church was packed. The crib was adorned with life sized figures. As a junior I had no choice, I had to sit with my parents. My brother and the older cousins got to stand outside under open skies, defined by the stars and the sky rockets that vied for aerial supremacy. The crackers went berserk as the church bells pealed at the stroke of midnight.
My Aunt was in charge of the late supper that followed mass at my Grandparents’ house. I can still remember too vividly how the Christmas pudding caught fire, the Brandy doing its job. Even the littlest member of the group managed to keep his eyelids from crashing down.
We got up early despite the eventful night. It was the big day. There was a tinge of sadness too, it meant the pinnacle, it was downhill after this. The journey was as important as the destination, even more. The day kicked off with generously buttered slices of delicious Breudher cake purchased from “Perera & Sons”: a premium baker and caterer in Sri Lanka still going strong (and definitely not related to the writer’s family). It was a mouth watering hangover from the Dutch colonial era. My mother reserved the best for lunch. Savoury rices with a choice of multiple curries. Too many. I dare not list them all, it is another narrative. The laughter, the screams as Christmas gifts were opened. I must return to reality.
Melbourne is bracing for yet another Christmas, December 2014. The decorations are out as the shopping centers issue their annual festive warnings. It is time for me to dream. But my wife drops an enlightening bomb shell. Let’s make new memories; if not our own kids will miss out. If not we might look back in another few decades and regret missing this time as well. Yet that call, can I introduce my son to a ghost of Christmas past Sri Lankan style, while his grandparents are still there. As for me I must change too, I cannot rescue lost innocence. But it’s hard.
© Jude C Perera November 2014
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