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A Calcutta Christmas
A moment from Bow Barracks Forever

I wish I had much more time to write this piece but it needs to be in by tomorrow and much more time to research it. Now, I had to write this piece as I feel a bit like an Anglo-Indian myself these days, being married to a Bengali must make me at least half Bengali and after seven years in India and most of them in Calcutta, I really think that to get the best out of Christmas and New Year, you really have to spend some time with the older Anglo-Indians to get in the swing of things and for outsiders to Christmas to try to understand what it’s all about. I have a couple of great memories of New Year’s Eve celebrations in the Rangers Club in Dalhousie.

I’m not just talking about the boro din, plum cake queueing along Park Street for Flurys, a Christmas Eve visit to St Paul’s or that sacred trip to the zoo on Christmas day. Here I’m talking about the whole deal of Christmas festivities and what it’s all about.

I spent this evening — actually a very short part of this evening — at the Rangers Club having a bit of a chin wag with some old friends. I wanted to get a gist of how Christmas used to be in Calcutta in the golden days, not so many years gone by. Everyone was of the view that Christmas just wasn’t the same these days. There used to be many more festivities and traditions before but no one hardly bothers that much.

The preparations for Christmas used to start about two weeks before when the house would be painted and the Christmas cakes used to get baked. The Christmas cake was quite a big deal and all the families would make their own but as most people didn’t have an oven they would go and have it baked by the local baker. One person was saying that his grandmother would go and sit there for the whole three hours during baking, keeping a careful eye on the baker and the oven.

Christmas Eve was the day when the whole family would decorate the house with streamers and other decorations. When I was little we used to put the tree and decorations up 12 days before Christmas and take it down 12 days after. Not being particularly religious myself I’m not sure what the exact significance of this is but its starting to follow a similar path.

All the family would then dress up in new clothes and go off to midnight mass as many of you do even now. After mass, the whole family would go back home, the cake would be cut by all, then adults would get the grog out and the kids would eagerly open their presents before a big feast that would be had by all. Memories of salt beef, kal kals, something like doughnuts that looks like an Italian gnocchi and roast cookies.

Christmas day would start early with the mothers and grand-mothers preparing the roast lunch, everyone had memories of roast duck even though a couple did mention that their family used to have turkey but the roast duck sounded like the favourite. The stuffing was made with the giblets from the bird, boiled mashed potatoes, peas, carrot and some herbs and the bird would be served with roaster potatoes, carrots, greens and lashings of roast gravy. Christmas pudding would follow and the rest of the day would be filled with singing, Christmas carols and dancing. All good clean family fun.

Boxing Day, as I’m sure most of you won’t know, is the day that follows Christmas. The day in my younger years when the aunts and uncles came around for lunch but I never knew the meaning so I looked it up. This was the day when the church opened up the boxes where the parishioners had deposited coins, it was also the day for the household staff to celebrate Christmas as they all had to work on Christmas day. This is still a national holiday in England. Anyway, this was the day in Calcutta when everyone used to pack picnics and alcohol and amass at the zoo. Apparently there would be a big party there and everyone would eat, drink, sing and dance. Sounds great to me but unfortunately another thing that is lost to history.

New Year’s Eve was another big bash at the Rangers Club and still a great way to celebrate the new year even now if you’re prepared to dance all night with little old ladies in frocks with free-flowing alcohol and the hangover from hell in the morning.

The last big day of the Anglo-Indian Christmas or Christmas in general was the day that celebrated epiphany. Or the end of the 12 days of Christmas, usually on January 6, again another day when there would be a big feast and dinner dance and again lots of booze.

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