Remembering Christmas from my childhood
When I was a teenager, 40 years back, Christmas was celebrated very differently than it is now. Everyone young and old was busy preparing to welcome baby Jesus and the New Year. Parents were busy in making new clothes for the entire family, and in preparing sweets and planning out the menu for Christmas day. Children of the house were busy in building homemade Cribs, Stars to hang high, and decorating the fresh branches of Christmas trees.
Children also had the task of helping to clean and decorate the parish church with fresh flowers and other decorations. Choir practice was one of the main activities in church leading up to the Christmas mass.
Back in the days, Christmas was celebrated in a simple manner and it was very meaningful. Everything related to the celebration was natural and fresh. The simple way of celebration lead families to avoid spending too much money on unnecessary things.
The place where I grew up was a small village in Mangalore called Belman. Preparations for Christmas began few weeks in advance.The most important of those preparations included sending Christmas cards to family and friends who lived far, preparing a number of sweets to enjoy at home and distribute to others in the neighbourhood, making a homemade Star, to decorate a natural and fresh Christmas tree, and to make a beautiful Crib.
Olden days, the main way to send Christmas wishes and greetings was by using greeting cards. People used to celebrate Christmas within their own families and there were no big parties or get-togethers, so sending greeting cards was the main way to send wishes to each and everyone especially the family members who lived far. Because of this tradition, post offices were the busiest places in town to sort out the cards and to distribute them to people. We waited anxiously for the postman every day to collect as many cards as we can from our loved ones. I miss receiving cards nowadays because the latest technology has replaced this simple gesture by WhatsApp and E-greetings.
Next activity everyone got busy with was to make a natural and beautiful Crib for baby Jesus. We used to grow fresh grass and herbs around the crib. We made the roads and streams in the crib to look as natural as possible in an attempt to depict the scene from 2000 years ago. Mini statues of Mary, Joseph, the three kings, shepherds and sheep were beautifully placed around in the crib. After Christmas mass, the statue of baby Jesus was placed in the crib and that’s when everyone rushed to see the Crib because that is what everyone was preparing and waiting for. It was as if Jesus was born on that same day and not 2000 years back. That feeling is indescribable. And the best Crib received a gift after Christmas from the church.
After the crib, the next important tradition was preparing many different types of sweets called “Kuswar”. Kuswar was prepared at least a week earlier. I remember very well and that all ladies in the neighborhood used to gather in one house and prepare all the kuswar for that family, as much as they needed. Then the next day they would all meet in another house and do the same. This continued until all the houses were done preparing kuswar. This was a great example of unity and love within the community those days.
One day before Christmas, kuswar was distributed among neighbors, friends and family. Although the goal was to keep all the sweets ready for distribution, there were two main items that were supposed to be prepared and consumed on the same day. Those two items were “rice laddoos” and “aape”. Rice laddoos are made of roasted dry rice flour mixed with coconut and jaggery. And Aape, are made of ground rice in liquid form mixed with jaggery and fresh coconut, fermented and fried.
Without these two, kuswar was not complete. We used to eagerly wait for this day to enjoy the rice laddoos then and there.The whole family used to gather when the time came to make the laddoos and enjoy eating them as soon as they were made. These laddoos were far tastier than the commercially-prepared laddoos these days. Kuswar is now easily available in the market. Working people have almost no time to spend on making kuswar so business-minded people realized the potential and started selling kuswar. But they are no way as tasty as the homemade sweets, but in a way it serves the purpose.
Another important tradition was making the main symbol of Christmas which was a Star. The star had showed the way to the three kings and lead them to the birthplace of Jesus. I recollect very well that we never bought a star back then. Instead, everyone made it at home using bamboo sticks. Bamboo was nicely cut and polished and made into thin sticks which were then tied at the ends with the help of sticky tape and finally covered by sticking colorful pieces of paper with the help of all-purpose flour paste. I still remember every year my brother was the best in making this homemade star, and I used to help him in sticking the colorful papers. He used to put it high on the roof or on the top of a tall tree so that every passerby could see it from far. These days one can find very fancy stars in the market, so the joy of making handmade stars has fully vanished.
Next tradition was the decoration of Christmas tree. A fresh branch of a tree was used to make a tree. This branch was placed in a deep hole in the ground in front of the house. There were no fancy ornaments to decorate it then, so we used to make a long garland of the all the past and new Christmas greeting cards and tie it all around the tree as a decoration.
On kuswar day, after enjoying the variety of sweets, everyone concentrated on the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We waited eagerly to attend Mass at 12 am. All sorts of tricks were used by us to stay awake until then. The Mass was beautifully celebrated along with singing carols with the choir. Sadly, now the mass timings have completely changed to a much earlier time slot and that feeling of excitement like olden days doesn’t exist anymore.
After Christmas till New year, parishioners participated in “Natalanso Khel” which simply meant Carol Singing. That was one of the things everyone looked forward to. Carol singers, usually youngsters in groups, visited every house in the middle of the night, in festive costumes to sing carols which usually woke the entire household up because of their beautiful singing. The neighborhood houses waited for them and the singers also got an opportunity to earn some money through their singing. This tradition has slowly died down, sadly. Modern days Carol singing is not the same what we enjoyed as Natalanso Khel. I really miss it.
Other than Natalanso Khel, I recollect memories of two main people of my life, when I celebrate Christmas away from home are, my brother who made a beautiful Star every year and my Mom who made a lot of tasty Kuswar for the family and for all the neighborhood.
Like today, Christmas was the best time of the year back in the day. However, today the real purpose of the celebration has completely diverted from what it really is. Unfortunately, nowadays children recognize Christmas only through gifts and Santa Claus. During my childhood we never exchanged gifts and we did not even know who Santa Claus was We only knew that Christmas means the birth of Jesus. But now, rich and poor, exchange gifts for completing the celebration of Christmas. Children are anxiously waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and wait for Christmas morning to see if they got what they had asked from Santa. It has become an expectation that people will exchange gifts and spend a lot of money on Christmas unnecessarily.
Jesus was born as a man to give us the message of peace and love. If we want to experience the real meaning of Christmas, we must try to spread the message what Jesus brought to this earth when he was born, by sharing our love and happiness among less fortunate ones. We can save some part of our spending and share it with the needy and bring smiles on their faces. This way they can also be included in the happiness and we will surely receive blessings for ourselves and our children and further generations.
There are a lot of people around us, who cannot even afford one meal a day. Let us all think about them on this special day and give them anything – whatever we can afford. Let us try to make them feel that we are all one in Jesus. Let us distribute sweets to also those who cannot give us anything back. Let us not forget those are unable to celebrate Christmas due to suffering from incurable sicknesses, or those who have lost their loved ones, or those who are on their death beds. Let us try to spend some time with them this season and share in their sorrows. The peace we get through these acts will be greater than any other celebrations. If we do this, our Christmas will be more fruitful and it will surely prepare a place for us in heaven.
I hope this article has helped you relive the celebrations as they used to take place in the olden days and also helped you see the real meaning of Christ’s birth.
I wish you all a blessed and fruitful season of love, unity and peace.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!
by Jessy D’Sa