Much of the gaiety and ebullience is subdued today, says Samir Mukerjee, who remembers Christmas as a time of spontaneous loving and giving
calcutta’s life has always straddled two cultures comfortably. While the Indian elements were very strong, as expected, the British connection left an indelible impact on Calcutta’s landscape. Christmas was one of those festivals which the Calcuttans observed in their own way with a great deal of enthusiasm.
As far as I was concerned, the resonance of Christmas was more powerful than any other festival, Hindu or Muslim, which barely impinged on my consciousness. A month before Christmas there was always the usual rush for Christmas cards, which had to be sent overseas by Sea Mail. Visiting the shops in New Market to scout around for appropriate cards turned out to be a pleasant occupation.
New Market looked dolled up from December 1, ready to receive a host of visitors, feverishly engaged in their Christmas shopping. All the shop windows were aglitter with frosty snow, tinsel, glass baubles, twinkly trees and, of course, Santa Claus.
In the centre of New Market, Chinese stalls sprang into life selling all sorts of Christmas decorations. There were forests of artificial Christmas trees in all sizes, paper hats, wax garlands of pointsettias and holly, stars and Chinese lanterns and last but not least vast boxes of multi-coloured bonbons (crackers).
On the food front, ancient shops like D’Gama’s, Wyse and Nahoum’s made it a point to serve the most delectable goodies only produced in the winter. Nahoum’s Christmas cake, mince pies and plum pudding had an enviable reputation and even non-Christians gravitated towards these shops in search of their favourite cakes and pastries. It is only in December that Nahoum’s goes in for marzipan sweets and baclava. Could Babette’s Feast have been more elaborate than this' Wyse used to entice us with chicken and ham paste in bottles during the festive season. The flower stalls were ablaze with chrysanthemums, asters, roses and dahlias in their pristine glory, longing to be appreciated in responsive homes.
Christmas touched the hearts of the Anglo-Indian community in a very special sense. The birth of Christ meant so much to Protestants and Catholics alike. They used to prepare or buy cookies and cakes a week before Christmas to make their celebrations complete.
That was the time when visiting hapless old men and women in the Tollygunge Homes and in the Little Sisters of the Poor was almost mandatory, specially taking useful little gifts like soap, talcum power and towels for them. The old people also received a supply of comestibles which would see them through the Christmas week. Some of my Anglo-Indian friends never forgot their appointment with old people’s homes.
On Christmas day itself, Christian families congregated in their own houses, serving a gargantuan lunch to their near and dear ones. In the olden days, the singing and dancing took place in their houses in the evening. It was a wonderful picture of domestic felicity where the reunion of families was high on the agenda. The Anglo-Indians have always been family-oriented, and during Christmas they gave their feelings full indulgence. One mustn’t forget how they attended Watch Night Service at different churches on Christmas Eve. This practice still continues unabated in spite of changing times.
As a child I was greatly attracted by carol-singing, which brought so much colour into our lives. Almost a week before Christmas, groups of Anglo-Indian boys and girls moved around in hired buses, dropping in on people they knew well. They sang the most divine carols for about half an hour and then moved on. I have heard carol singers on the street, opposite our house on Lower Circular Road. They covered the area on foot, stopping in front of houses to pour out their hearts and promote good cheer. The times are so unpropitious today that the carol singers haven’t got the courage to tour their locality on foot any longer. There is so much edginess in the air that singing songs in a festive mood has become an impossibility.
Santa Claus was the very epitome of benevolence and his arrival stirred our sense of mystery and wonder. I remember receiving Christmas stockings on Christmas morning, hanging from the foot of our beds. It was enough to know that Father Christmas had come down our chimney at night with this fabulous gift. For a while that was the story I loved to believe and my childish fancies were never suppressed by over-exposure to reality. My father used to take us out to Park Street to see the illuminations and the attractive shop windows. Smart departmental stores like Whiteway Laidlaw, Hall & Anderson and Army & Navy Stores went in for very tasteful window-dressing, which children simply loved gaping at.
At all the smart clubs where the British influence was still very strong (in the 1940’s and ’50’s), roast turkey and ham and plum pudding lit up with brandy were the staple fare for the gourmets at lunchtime. One also can’t forget how Mock Turtle Soup formed the first course. One felt euphoric in the surcharged atmosphere and the Christmas meals reinforced that feeling of well-being.
It’s difficult to erase the memories of the delightful Christmas cake made by our Christian friends, Hitty and Bulu Mukherjee. The ingredients were carefully chosen and chopped and a secret mixture made with dollops of brandy. This was handed over to the local Muslim baker for the final product. As far as cake-making was concerned, the Mukherjees never put a foot wrong. A lot of other families went through the same process and a competitive spirit infected their efforts. Comparisons were made in a spirit of healthy rivalry. On the 24th night, Firpo’s used to serve a recherche Christmas dinner, after which dolls were distributed to all the ladies present.
I’ve also heard that on Christmas day, there used to be a children’s tea party at Viceregal Lodge (the present National Library). The children came from the aristocratic families of Bengal. Some of my friends remember Lord and Lady Linlithgow moving around among the guests and putting them at their ease with a flow of easy conversation. Santa Claus made his appearance in the middle of the party to hand out gifts to the children. These were the memories of an era when Christmas had a momentum of its own and everyone was caught up in it.
My wife remembers the gay Christmas parties at the old P.G. Hospital, where the nurses’ room had tables laden with cakes, patties and cookies and steaming hot coffee for the visiting doctors and their families who were invited to participate in the merry-making. The Children’s Ward was specially decorated for this occasion. Nursing homes like The Park on Victoria Terrace and Woodlands in Alipore used to celebrate Christmas with beer parties on the 25th morning.
Calcutta became transformed overnight, as it were, with such a spontaneous display of gaiety and merriment. The ebullience is subdued today, but one can almost hear Bing Crosby softly crooning: “It’s Christmas time in the city, ting-a-ling, hear them sing; soon it will be Christmas Day …”