The best thing about being home for Christmas has been connecting with family, spending time together in a way that feels both merry and meaningfulDec 23, 2022, 12 48 | Updated: Dec 23, 2022, 17 49
I’ve lived away from Bangalore for precisely half my life, so it’s sometimes hard to define what home even means, but I finally think I know, and can explain. Let me start with a Christmas memory.
Scores of scabby-kneed kindergartners in beige pleated skirts line up to get their presents from Santa, I among them. It’s so exciting. There he sits, with his pink plastic face and white plastic beard, behind which astute observers can glimpse a wedge of brown skin and black beard. He’s handing out large beach balls, with a cotton kerchief included in the package. I don’t see a cotton kerchief included in mine. Mortified, I look around to see if anyone has noticed that I’ve been shortchanged by Santa. I slip my lunch napkin in so nobody will pity me. It turns out later that I do have a kerchief that I just didn’t see at first; but I remember the incident because I was very aware of what a strange kid I was, and also of what a strange Santa he was, and of how strange Christmas was in general.
Here’s another memory: I loved walking along Brigade Road, past my favourite Globe Stores, where almost every day I would buy something inexpensive—some glitter, or a pen refill, to do something creative with. At this time of year, Globe Stores was completely covered in tinsel and stars and assorted other decorations. A tree out front had “snow” on it—cotton wool, carefully strewn on its branches.
In hindsight, one of the strange things about these scenes is the aspiration to a “White Christmas.” Why did we have to have a pink-faced Santa? And cotton snow on a tree? Wasn’t Jesus born in Bethlehem? Why do we associate Christmas with snow?
The answer is that much of our classic Christmas imagery can be traced back to Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol during what was called the “little ice age” in 19th century England. His vision of a snowy landscape and warm feasting within has been hugely influential. The carol Jingle Bells, about dashing through the snow, was also written around the same time.
The foods we think of as “Christmassy” also have more to do with England than Bethlehem. Turkeys are indigenous to the Americas, but it was King Henry VIII, of the six wives, who favoured the bird as part of his Christmas banquet.
But in largely oven-less and spice-loving India, we didn’t limit ourselves to turkey. Sometimes there would be a roast bird of some kind at my family Christmasses, with the most delicious spicy stuffings, but there would also be sannas and sorpotel, which, like my family’s Catholic faith, is a legacy from the Portuguese. And there’d be homemade wine, and kuswar, an assortment of sweets and snacks that we’d gather and prepare in the weeks before Christmas.
It was a pleasure to make kuswar together. We would “help” with the chopping of the tutti-frutti or the plums, for obvious reasons. Once I found an entire half-walnut among the shells, and my brother was outraged and demanded I share, but my mother said he was welcome to patiently rummage through the shells himself if he liked.
Flattening the kulkuls and then rolling them off the back of a fork was an art, and the cousins would be complimented or insulted on their lightness or heaviness of hand. Once shaped, the kulkuls would be deep fried and then sugared by an adult. Selections of kuswar would be arranged on plates to be taken to neighbours and friends as we went on Christmas visits.
Now, those cousins who once made kuswar together are scattered around the world, but we come back to Bangalore once in a while, and it only takes a few days to slip into the old ways. It’s not snow and Dickensian imagery we’re after. That isn’t Christmas to us, no matter what the carols say. And delicious food in Bangalore? That’s a given. But the best thing about being home for Christmas has been connecting with family, spending time together in a way that feels both merry and meaningful.
You know, Christmas.