The one Christmas in India that I actually tried to celebrate in the manner of home was at the end of 2009, and by the time Shibu turned up around six with the beer, we all really needed one.
Later, drunk, I raised Em’s ire by forgetting that I was hosting a party at all, moving instead from person to person with a broad smile and a broader voice. She, meanwhile, shuttled back and forth from the kitchen with drinks and bowls of fruit salad. “Good job, hon,” I would say, a wide, oblivious grin firmly in place, before turning back to whomever I had somehow engaged in conversation. Typical Mallu couple.
It was mostly Em’s idea. She set the menu, invited the guests, and did pretty much all the cooking (my attempt at devilled eggs was not allowed to leave the kitchen). After several years abroad, we had both gotten accustomed to not having a home-style Christmas – for her, the United States; for me, New Zealand – but, having been back to our respective countries and families the previous year, 2009 had us missing more than usual the comforts of Christmas trees and the traditional turkey-and-ham feast. Neither of us were particularly traditionalist, let alone religious. It was that home comfort that we missed.
Christmas in Kerala does not generally involve Christmas trees, turkey, or ham, although you might see plastic versions of each in the windows of Big Bazaar or your more upwardly mobile local bakeries. My workplace had a few glittery streamers up, too, but that was as far as the Christmas spirit extended: people still had to work on Christmas Day itself. No public holiday here, nor on Boxing Day. I blagged a couple of days off after some gentle pleading with my boss, but when 25th December rolled around a year later, I was there in the office.
Where Christmas in the US and NZ is rampantly consumerist, with our most pressing concerns regarding shopping and thoughts of what to buy, Christmas in Kerala remains primarily a Christian occasion. There are plenty of Christians in Kerala – over six million, or 20% of the population, at last count – but my Mallu Christian friends on Facebook post photos of their children ready for church in Sunday best, not of their children excitedly tearing at wrapping paper with manic, bleary eyes. Kerala and the rest of India are moving that way, slowly; a Central Bank of India advertisement in the December issue of Caravan Magazine presented a ‘Festival Bonanza’ from September 1st on, with Christmas represented by a bauble-laden tree (although the word ‘Christmas’ was not mentioned anywhere). For now, though, Christmas remains primarily a celebration of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit for Kerala’s Christian population.
For many other Malayalis, Christmas is the same as any other festival, religious or otherwise: an excuse to get drunk. And as mentioned previously, after several hours of guests coming and going, all creeds, colours and ages represented, Em and I were quite ready to knock back a glass of something, too.
After the last guests had left, a full day of haphazard revelling complete, Em and I sat and reflected for a few minutes. We’d had a go at a home-style Christmas, and everyone seemed to have enjoyed it, but something was missing. What deeper element, something we could never have had in Kerala, had we overlooked?
It was family, of course. The comforts of home, represented by blood ties. I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past two Christmases with my brothers’ respective families, and they have been blissfully unstructured: a warm and shining sun, lots of food and beer, talking on the grass about our pasts and futures. None of these people could be there with us in Kerala. Instead, we had a procession of foreigners taking the opportunity to speak their mother tongue, and a steady stream of locals taking the opportunity to have a few drinks. Some of them had become so close that they were like family, for sure, but that intangible sense of unconditional acceptance was absent.
The key difference, as far as I can see, is that in Kerala, those unbreakable family bonds are a constant in most people’s lives. Sons continue to live with their parents for years after reaching adulthood, and daughters usually move into their in-laws’ home upon marriage (while remaining close to their blood relatives). Family is in year-round proximity. As such, Christmas as an annual family gathering is superfluous.
So, exhaling over one last beer and finishing up the last of the fruit salad, we thought about our families and remembered the Christmases of our pasts. Winters for her, summers for me. Tables covered with food and the scent of pine in the air. Boisterous neighbours and relatives. We had made our own new memories this Christmas in Kerala – incomplete memories, with a hole where our families would have been.