For the last 18 years this has mostly been Shillong, but before that, it was one tea estate after another all across Assam. The ritual, though, remained the same. We’d take them out carefully, those ceramic figurines, and place them on the mantelpiece.
They might have occupied pride of place, but our crib—the model of the Nativity of Christ—could hardly be considered grand. The figurines less than an inch, but the set complete: Mother Mary kneeling, brown-robed Joseph, a lowly shepherd holding hat to heart in reverence, three wise men and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, an angel in white, a few barn animals and, of course, baby Jesus looking remarkably content on his bed of hay. He is placed at the centre; all the others cluster around him in what’s come to be immutably fixed positions. The figurines have been with us for as long as I can remember—gifted to my mother by my grand-aunt Grace in 1989.
In a household that didn’t, and still doesn’t, throw anything away unless irrefutably broken, we’ve never replaced the Nativity set, despite my adolescent pleas to buy something grander. In my head, I envisioned something close to an Italian presepe—a miniature village scene, like the one I once saw in Naples, busy as a Bruegel painting, the manger tucked away in a corner lost amid the playing children, the working men and women.
To make up for our crib’s diminutive proportions, I’d try and craft elaborate surroundings. Straw, scissored to tiny pieces, strewn generously around the figurines. Once, an upside-down crystal bowl as a nativity pedestal. Another December, I enlisted the help of our tea estate carpenter to make a wooden backdrop, before which the holy family could be arranged.
In all honesty, it didn’t matter. What was important was they were there, and, unlike the rest of the decorations, simple and unadorned. I realise now, that our crib, tiny as it was, lay at the heart of our Christmas rituals. And wherever we went, it went with us.
I was born in transit. For that was the way of life for “tea planters”—posted to one estate and then another once every few years. When I was three, we moved to Harchurah TE, near Tezpur, for an unusually long time. It was my home until I turned 10. And there I grew up in busy solitude. Around me, a veritable farm with ducks, goats, rabbits, chickens. Inside, gigantic bookshelves. Ridiculously idyllic as it may sound, that was my childhood.
When I was sent off to school, it was the winter holidays my sister and I looked forward to most. Three glorious months within which fell a host of festive occasions—Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday. At the tea estates, Christmas came early. A week before the 25th, the district club held the Children’s Party.
It was the most exhilarating day of the year. It began with the obligatory fancy dress (I insisted on being a fairy princess, while my sister, the more adventurous of the two, dressed as a scarecrow or swashbuckling pirate). And then followed a host of games—musical chairs, egg race, passing the parcel. After which, most awaited of all, presents. Distributed by a jolly, inebriated uncle who’d been bribed into a Santa costume by a generous peg or more. The children’s party ended with a grand feast of too many jam tarts and plum cakes and we’d return home tired and happy.
A few days later, Christmas at our “home” on the tea estate would be a less elaborate affair, though still imbued with importance. There was the effort of unpacking the decorations, finding a tree (in those Assam days a branch lopped off the most alpine-looking shrub), checking the tree lights and fighting with my sister over who got to decorate the mantelpiece. For here was where the pretty (fake) holly was strung, and the stockings (brought back by my parents from one of their trips “abroad”) were hung.
It was a ritual in my family—and still is—for us to decorate the tree together. Rather, my father sat around with his beer and Mummy made helpful suggestions, while my sister and I did all the hard work. Slowly, they went up—shiny baubles and bells. At the very top a star. A generous sprinkling of cotton for a snowy effect, and finally, beneath the tree, the presents.
All that remained was for me, at least until I was seven or eight, to write my letter to Santa.
“Dear Santa,” began one from 1990, “how are you? This year, I have been very good.” Next morning, the letter under my pillow would be gone. My stocking filled. I’d run to the tree to check for presents.
From tea estate to tea estate we carried our decorations, our crib, our tinsel. For a while we were posted in remotest North Lakhimpur, where no one visited us over Christmas, but my parents made sure we had the largest, most picture-perfect tree. Where my father drove over two hours to the nearest club so I could play musical chairs and meet Santa.
I think my parents felt it important that our rituals were faithfully repeated. It mattered because our tree didn’t always slip into the same corner, the mantelpieces changed and the Christmas cards arrived at frequently varying addresses. More than merely marking time, the rituals created constancy.
Perhaps this is also why our Christmas rituals still hold strong even after my father retired early in 2004 and we “settled” in Shillong. Now that we’re older, beer is had by all. Mummy is told to relax, do nothing. While my sister and I, sometimes joined by younger cousins, decorate the tree—a six-foot fake pine that towers above us and never sheds its needles.
It’s also true that sometimes we aren’t all in Shillong for Christmas. My sister lives in Wales with her family. I’ve peripatetically moved from Delhi to London to Shillong and back again to the capital. It hasn’t always been possible to be together in the same place.
Last year, I was alone in Delhi—that most un-Christmassy of cities—and despite being unwell, dragged myself for midnight mass at Cathedral Church of Redemption. A ritual unkept by my family. It felt strange and unfamiliar, and I returned home miserable, vowing not to spend Christmas in Delhi again.
So here I am travelling back to Shillong; and since my sister and her family cannot join us, it’ll be just us three. And some close friends from Delhi. When we land at Guwahati, it is, as always, hot and sunny; the air starts cooling only when we cross Jorabad, and take the turn to Meghalaya.
We soon start leaving them behind, the paddy fields and factories, the plains slowing giving way to slopes. The skies turn a clear sharp blue. Along the climb, we pass makeshift stalls selling plump spiky pineapples, and I’m caught wondering whether they’re being sold out of season. I don’t visit Shillong often enough to be sure.
We stop for tea, and my Khasi falters as I order for us; my language is “thlun” as they say here in the hills, blunt like a knife. “Where you from?” a kong (Khasi lady) asks as she sells me oranges outside.
I wonder if it’s possible to always be in transit between all the places where one has lived. To not have a memory of rootedness. As we pass the silvery waters of Umiam Lake just outside Shillong, I am brushed by sadness. It doesn’t help that it takes hours to make our way into town, traffic snaking through its narrow streets, inching slowly along. We’ve been up since five, we’re tired, it’s been a long day already.
My mood begins to lift only when we take the turn into our house. A star dangles in our porch.
A wreath hangs on the door. My parents emerge, smiling. I feel a sense closest to one I’ve had of “home”—that I’d rather be nowhere else.
Inside, the box of decorations is waiting. My mother has left them for me and my friends. By allowing them this, it is understood, they are also family. There is roast meat on the table.
The cake, baked in October, lies wrapped in brandy-soaked cloth.
It is food I don’t make anywhere else, for in a way, it must only be had at home. This way it retains its sanctity.
When we’ve freshened up and mulled the wine, we begin on the decorations. The tree stands tall, out come the shiny baubles and tinsel, the fat Santas, the fake holly. Jim Reeves’s Twelve Songs plays on the stereo. Evening falls. The fire crackles. I am thinking of a line I read in a Sarah Dessen book called What Happened to Goodbye.
“Home wasn’t a set house,” she wrote, “or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”
On Christmas day, we will stand before the tree for a family photograph. We’re usually dressed nice for this. Dad in a blazer—if not in a tie and suit. Mum in smart trousers and a festive sweater and scarf. My sister and I in stockings and sparkly winter dresses.
We have done this every Christmas we’ve spent together. It could be an art installation marking the passage of time, the inevitability of ageing, the steadfastness of love. In front of the tree I have been five, fifteen and thirty-five. My parents unrecognisably young. My sister wearing her beautiful smile. We will vary it up, first the siblings, then the parents, then all together, even the occasional single.
Around us, it is true, homes have changed. There have been more addresses than I can remember. But home, though, is the constants, in our fixed positions, the people at the centre.