Home is wherever we happen to set up the crib at Christmas.
For the last 18 years, this has mostly been Shillong, but before that, it was one tea estate after another all across Assam. The ritual, though, remained the same. We’d take them out carefully, those ceramic figurines, and place them on the mantelpiece.
Pride of Place
They might have occupied pride of place, but our crib—the model of the Nativity of Christ—could hardly be considered grand. The figurines less than an inch, but the set complete: Mother Mary kneeling, brown-robed Joseph, a lowly shepherd holding hat to heart in reverence, three wise men and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, an angel in white, a few barn animals and, of course, baby Jesus looking remarkably content on his bed of hay.
He is placed at the center; all the others cluster around him in what’s come to be immutably fixed positions. The figurines have been with us for as long as I can remember—gifted to my mother by my grand-aunt Grace in 1989.
In a household that didn’t, and still doesn’t, throw anything away unless irrefutably broken, we’ve never replaced the Nativity set, despite my adolescent pleas to buy something grander. In my head, I envisioned something close to an Italian presepe—a miniature village scene, like the one I once saw in Naples, busy as a Bruegel painting, the manger tucked away in a corner lost amid the playing children, the working men, and women.
To make up for our crib’s diminutive proportions, I’d try and craft elaborate surroundings. Straw scissored to tiny pieces, strewn generously around the figurines. Once, an upside-down crystal bowl as a nativity pedestal. Another December, I enlisted the help of our tea estate carpenter to make a wooden backdrop, before which the holy family could be arranged.
In all honesty, it didn’t matter. What was important was they were there, and, unlike the rest of the decorations, simple and unadorned. I realize now, that our crib, tiny as it was, lay at the heart of our Christmas rituals. And wherever we went, it went with us.
Enjoying the busy solitude
I was born in transit. For that was the way of life for “tea planters”—posted to one estate and then another once every few years. When I was three, we moved to Harchurah TE, near Tezpur, for an unusually long time. It was my home until I turned 10. And there I grew up in busy solitude. Around me, a veritable farm with ducks, goats, rabbits, chickens. Inside, gigantic bookshelves. Ridiculously idyllic as it may sound, that was my childhood.
When I was sent off to school, it was the winter holidays my sister and I looked forward to most. Three glorious months within which fell a host of festive occasions—Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday. At the tea estates, Christmas came early. A week before the 25th, the district club held the Children’s Party.
It was the most exhilarating day of the year. It began with the obligatory fancy dress (I insisted on being a fairy princess, while my sister, the more adventurous of the two, dressed as a scarecrow or swashbuckling pirate). And then followed a host of games—musical chairs, egg race, passing the parcel. After which, most awaited of all, presents. Distributed by a jolly, inebriated uncle who’d been bribed into a Santa costume by a generous peg or more. The children’s party ended with a grand feast of too many jam tarts and plum cakes and we’d return home tired and happy.
A few days later, Christmas at our “home” on the tea estate would be a less elaborate affair, though still imbued with importance. There was the effort of unpacking the decorations, finding a tree (in those Assam days a branch lopped off the most alpine-looking shrub), checking the tree lights and fighting with my sister over who got to decorate the mantelpiece. For here was where the pretty (fake) holly was strung, and the stockings (brought back by my parents from one of their trips “abroad”) were hung.