A merry journey

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By Take a walk down memory lane as we evoke the ghosts of Christmases past. By Suktara Ghosh and Tania Bhattacharya
  • Published 25.12.11
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Christmas in Calcutta has always been special — standing out with its jazzy lights, sparkling decorations, carols ringing out across the city and cakes selling out like…well, hot cakes. From the Raj days, when the governor-general hosted glittering dinner balls for the crème de la crème of the Bengal Presidency, to the early ’70s when cancan and Arabian dancers, and even striptease and drag shows livened the nights for revellers on Park Street, Yuletide has always been a merry affair in the city.

But as we move headlong into the 21st century, we forget the good years gone by. Here’s a trip down memory lane to a time when Calcutta came alive for Christmas.

Tales of the Raj

Christmas had a special character during colonial times. Before the capital shifted to Delhi in 1911 and for decades after, Calcutta was the hub of entertainment. And it especially came into its own during the Christmas season from late November to early January.

“Back in the ’30s, Chowringhee was where Christmas was celebrated. The grand buildings would be decorated with lights and balloons, which could be seen from the boats on the river. In fact, one could see the Ganges from Chowringhee,” recalls retired archbishop, Rev. Henry D’Souza, who was then a child.

As might be expected, Christmas was a resplendent affair at Government House. The governor-general and the city’s notables attended mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then, the Viceroy hosted a Christmas breakfast, a dinner ball and a supper party for top officials. The dinner was typically English — a decorated boar’s head, roast turkey, Christmas pie, plum pudding, nuts, dates, imported wines and a large bowl of punch.

Every year, Bow Barracks decks up for one of the most popular Christmas parties in town

The city also had the best of sports and entertainment. A military band played on Christmas Day at Eden Gardens — a tradition that stretched till the ’60s. The place to be seen for the smart set, according to Bhaskar Mitter, one of the city’s most illustrious nonagenarians, was at the Maharaja of Cooch Behar’s cricket matches on his vast property in present-day Alipore. “The highlight of the cricket season during Christmas was the match between the Viceroy’s XI and the Maharaja’s XI,” he says.

From tennis to cricket, polo and racing, the city’s calendar was full. “Players such as René Lacoste played at the South Club’s tennis courts, which were among the finest in the world,” recounts Mitter. There were also polo tournaments at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.

An anonymous painting of the
famous Christmas dinners in the
pre-Independence days; (above) Linda O’Brien, wife of Errol O’Brien, with her children at a Christmas party at the Dalhousie Institute.
Photograph courtesy Errol O'Brien

Then there were golf tournaments at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club and wrestling and boxing competitions at the Botanical Gardens. Films and plays — largely patriotic — touted as ‘Baradiner shreshtho akorshon (best Christmas attractions) were shown in theatres across Calcutta. English theatre groups too would stop over and stage plays, en route to Australia.

“Central Avenue was then just a large open space — ideal for Christmas carnivals and circuses. Since Calcutta was very much on the international map then, foreign circuses were quite common,” reminisces Mitter. A huge favourite was the Leap of Death stunt — a man would jump from a tall structure into a tank of water below, much to the awe of kids and other spectators.

Christmas, of course, wasn’t complete without balls and dances. The Annual Christmas Ball hosted by the Goan Association of Bengal, holding its 100th dance tonight at the Ranger’s Club, was a huge affair. Says Maria Fernandes, president of the association: “It was and still is the epitome of celebrations in the Goan community. The evening would see everything from ballroom to fishermen’s dances, mando sessions, games, feni and Goan delicacies like sorpotel.”

The Stuart Hogg Market, as New Market was known, was as bustling then as it is now during Christmas. People headed there for the latest European styles in whatever they wanted to buy. Then there was Pora Bazaar just behind present-day Calcutta Club, along with the departmental stores Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co, Hall & Anderson and the Army & Navy Store on Chowringhee, where one bought the best Christmas gifts, crackers, hats and toys.

Christmas is incomplete without a taste of the festive goodies at Nahoum’s; (below) staples like rose cookies and kalkals are a must-have in every Christian home during Christmas; (bottom) dry fruits used for making fruit cake
Photograph courtesy BRIDGET WHITE-KUMAR

Bakeries too thrived during this time. Even today, old-timers speak reverently of Nahoum’s delicious cakes and pastries. There were other bakeries like M.X. D’Gama, Wyse and Saldanha’s that sold del-ectable Christmas goodies.

Burra Din

Post-Independence, as the colonial influence flushed out, the stately flavour of the festival diminished to become a joyous celebration for all Calcuttans. Till the end of the ’70s, Burra Din was made a very merry affair by the large number of Anglo-Indians and Goans living here. Music and dance was an integral part of it all, be it at home amongst family or at clubs like The Grail Club or the Dalhousie Institute (D.I.).

Church services before Christmas day and the midnight mass on Christmas Eve were a must for every Christian. Stephen Fonseca remembers carols being played on records before the midnight mass began. But it is the mass itself that people love. Errol ’Brien says: “Each year, at the stroke of midnight, the church grows dark as the priest enters and Silent Night is sung — softly, before reaching a crescendo. The experience still gives me goose bumps.”

St. Paul’s Cathedral was — as it still is — the spiritual symbol of Christmas. The celebrations flagged off with the Nine Lessons and Carols service a week before Christmas, followed by carols around a bonfire and a feast. The midnight mass on Christmas Eve was a huge attraction. Says Revd. J. G. Stevens, founder-chairman, Udayan, and ex-vicar of the cathedral, who came to Calcutta from England in 1968: “People from across all religions and communities came for the mass and bowed before the altar. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere.”

Most Anglo-Indians and Goans lived around Park Circus, Park Street, Elliot Road, Royd Street, Free School Street and Ripon Street. “Christmas was celebrated in every house in these areas in the ’60s and ’70s and hospitality knew no bounds. There were cakes, wine, salt meat and more laid out. Everyone was invited,” says musician Nondon Bagchi. Earlier, in the ’50s and ’60s, bands would come around to different houses and play music on Christmas Eve. “We used to call them the poo poo baajas,” says Melvyn Brown.

Santa Claus ditches his sleigh for a tonga to ride through the streets of Calcutta; (top) Firpo’s restaurant was the place to be during the festive season

Christmas at Bow Barracks was grand too. The colony was decorated beautifully, while live music, a nightlong party, home-made wine and cakes, and a community dance, have been part of a long tradition.

Non-Christians too participated with equal enthusiasm. Moon Moon Sen remembers going carol singing from door to door with her friends as a child growing up in Alipore: “There were little Chinese shops on Free School Street selling Christmas decorations. They came to our home and decorated the entire place with colourful streamers. We’d a lot of European guests, so there was a party every night.”

Musician-director Anjan Dutt recalls carollers regaling the residents in every para. “And of course, Bengalis had to buy cakes from Nahoum and Flurys,” he says.

Moina Jhala, daughter of Aurelius David Khan, an ICS officer, recalls the Christmas routine. “In the morning, we’d go to church and then visit the graves of our relations. Then, we’d make a beeline for home, where a sumptuous Christmas lunch would be waiting, and of course, presents!” Jhala has kept Christmas traditions alive and now hosts a Christmas Eve dinner. The ambience is as Old World as can be, with delicious roasts on the table and a pianist belting out carols.

Christmas was welcomed with the buying of fruit preserves for the cake. June Tomkyns, who owns one of the city’s oldest salons, reminisces: “I always associate Christmas with the smell of baking in the house. My mum used to bake cakes, rose cookies and kalkals. The family got together to decorate the Christmas tree and exchange gifts on the 24th. One person dressed up as Santa Claus and came in with a bell and a bagful of gifts!”

As an Armenian, Haik Sookias had the best of both worlds — celebrating Christmas on December 25, and again on January 6 which is the Feast of the Epiphany. “The Armenians used to have a special Christmas picnic in the Botanical Gardens, and we would cycle all the way there from the Maidan,” he says.

Then there were — and still are — home-made goodies. “The Goan Christmas lunch consists of xacuti, pork roast, bafat and bebinca. We also make macaroons, dos, lethri, neuris and angel ribs,” says Fernandes. Today, you’ll get delicious meat loaves, roasts, and perfectly baked rose cookies and kalkals from Joanne Augustine, who runs the Birkmyre’s Hostel with her husband, Eddie Augustine.

The Park magic

T here was no place like Calcutta during Christmas in those days,” reminisces famous jazz guitarist Carlton Kitto, who shifted to the city in the early ’70s. And Park Street was the hub of all the action. Every shop was lit up and the restaurants decorated. There were magic and juggling shows in the restaurants and clubs. Above all, Park Street had vibrant live music — the legendary swinging ’60s — which attracted the city’s swish set as much as the food and wine.

“Park Street was a ‘sin street’ in those days, where the average middle class Bengali wouldn’t dare to go except during Christmas and New Year,” chuckles actor Victor Banerjee.

While Kitto, Louiz Banks and Pam Crain played at Blue Fox, Ripsy (known as the Marilyn Monroe of Calcutta) and Rubin Rebeiro (famous for his Nat King Cole voice) sang at Mocambo. Delilah, a French lady, owned Moulin Rouge where she also sang. “During Christmas, her daughter would ‘cancan’ with her troupe,” says Kitto. There were special cabarets, duet dances and even drag shows at Mocambo, Magnolia and Moulin Rouge. And if you could drop into the Leader Room of Firpo’s, you’d be treated to six cabarets in a single night!

Trincas was another hotspot with Usha Iyer (later Uthup), Jenny, Biddu and spotlight crooners like Eve and Molly livening up the music. “They started with Christmas songs and then went on to dance numbers. No one was allowed on the dance floor without jackets and ties in those days and the young men often borrowed them from the stewards!” smiles Shashi Puri of Trincas.

Others looking for some serious foot tapping headed to The Grand Hotel, where the nightclub Prince’s, boasted cab-aret performances by star dancer Miss Shefali. Another haunt was the Golden Slipper, where all the musicians who performed on Park Street converged after work. “We jammed till 5am, had breakfast there, and went home,” says Kitto.

A new world

Down the years, the hip ’happening of the city converged to the city’s clubs during Christmas. “The Saturday Club was one of the few places in Calcutta to go for Christmas. Those of us under 18 always tried to sneak past the porters to get in. The traditional feast included Christmas pudding, roast duck and chicken. In the evening, there was a dance in the ballroom,” recalls Atul Anand, a committee member.

Members at the Bengal Club gathered to sing carols, enjoyed rum cocktails and snacks, followed by a traditional lunch consisting of stuffed roast turkey, honey-glazed ham, plum pudding and mince pie. Subimal Ghosh carried the tradition of Bengal Club’s Christmas lunch to Calcutta Club in 1981. Think Waldorf Salad, consommé royale, Beckty Veronique and of course, roast turkey with apple sauce.

The hotels in the ’60s and ’70s took Christmas food seriously, featuring roasts, mince pie and plum pudding with brandy butter. Firpo’s, the Great Eastern Hotel and Polynesia at the Grand Hotel, which also had a dance floor and live bands, were popular haunts for grand Christmas lunches and dinners.

“Firpo’s was considered the best restaurant between Cairo and Shanghai,” recalls Mitter. “Their caviar served on blocks of ice was famous, as was their policy of leaving bottles of whiskey on the tables and taking a gentleman’s word when it came to billing the pegs.”

Things began to change in the ’80s, when most of the Anglo- Indian and Goan communities left Calcutta. An exorbitant entertainment tax drove out live music from all the restaurants on Park Street except Trincas, and the glamour faded. Today’s youth misses family Christmas lunches and heads to discos to dance to Bollywood numbers instead of the jive, rue the old-timers.

For us, there’s still no other place to be in for Christmas than Calcutta. The times may have changed and we’ve fast-forwarded into a new world — but the spirit remains the same. Merry Christmas!