By the time you reach three score and ten years, you’ve lived through the changing seasons of life and gazed at some incredible new horizons undreamed of in your youth or even in your more mature years.
The scenario has changed so completely in the past 30 years that if my own parents were to return now on a visit to earth, they might not survive the shocks they would suffer today.
However, through all the changing scenes of life, one thing has remained constant for me and that is the recurring miracle of Christmas. As far as I am concerned, the blatant advertising and extreme commercialisation of the festival have not robbed Christmas of its intrinsic truth and beauty.
I look back to the Christmases of my early childhood on a coconut estate where Santa Claus was unheard of, but where the essentials of love and joy were ever present. Going to the little village church filled with relatives to worship Christ on Christmas morning was an exciting event.
The location changed to Colombo after the age of ten, where for the first time my parents put up streamers and there was a miniature tree as the centre-piece on our dining table. Somewhere around that time, Perera & Sons launched their bakery business and we were introduced to the delights of Breudher and Yule Log.
Walking to the church which stood at the Kollupitiya junction on Christmas morning was the highlight of the day. I remember my brother and I had two silver rupees each and we discussed how we would spend this treasure. We agreed we would each give a rupee to the elderly beggar we always passed on the pavement, and the other would be our offering in church.
One of our favourite Christmas verses that we sang with feeling was:
“Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favour secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration, Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.”
Of course we had fun with visiting cousins, lighting crackers and sparklers, wafting balloons about – simple pleasures in no way related to today’s sophisticated entertainment.
My first Christmas after I married is one I’ll not forget, because I went down with measles, the horrid spots appearing on the 24th! Unforgettable in a different way was the Christmas when we had our first-born in the house and though she was fast asleep at 10 months, husband and I tiptoed into her room and placed a big teddy-bear in her cot on Christmas Eve.
In the years that followed, six others came to join her and we tried to give them some of the outward trimmings of this glad season – Santa Claus gifts and a glittering tree which we would decorate when the young ones were asleep. Husband had to make sure that every one of the seven was fast asleep before he went silently in to place their gifts on their beds or cots. Early morning, long before we felt ready to get up, we’d hear shouts of glee as wrappings were torn apart and then scurrying feet as they ran to show the others what each had found.
The morning service was still the focus of the day and from childhood they all realized the significance of it. They loved taking part in the Sunday School Carol and Gift Service well before the 25th. Every year a friend in the Girl Guides invited them to the Khan Memorial Ward to see the play put on by the little crippled children there – something that touched them deeply. A wonderful Roman Catholic nun named Mother Blanda was in charge.
Soon, our lot were putting on a Nativity Play under their mum’s direction, as part of their father’s birthday celebration a few days before Christmas. Friends and relations came gladly for the event and it was the next-best-thing to Christmas for all of us. At this time of the year, someone was always singing or humming a carol and we learnt a few new ones that hadn’t been in our own repertoire. It seems like yesterday that I was stopped in my tracks by the words that came from our kindergartner, Ranmali’s lips:
“We will serve you all we can,
Darling, darling little Man.”
A few years later, her younger-by-5-years sister, Sarla, caught my ear when she sang another carol I hadn’t heard before:
“Bring a torch, Jeanette-Isabella,
Bring a torch, come quickly and run!”
In those far-off days, Front Street, Pettah was where the best toy shops were and invariably on Christmas Eve husband and I would find ourselves out there with scores of other parents, choosing toys for our lot. We’d have to hurry back home to get washed and dressed – the children too – to attend the carol service which in our church has always been held on the 24th evening.
Inevitably, changes came. A beloved Seeya who lived with us, a boon companion of the children, died and was sadly missed that first Christmas. Son No. 3, went away to the U.S.A. at age 19 plus, the first fledgling to leave the nest, and that year we all felt his absence keenly and made a special tape recording of messages and songs, to send him.
Our eldest son got married at 23 and naturally also left home. On Christmas Eve, towards midnight, the doorbell rang and there were his wife and he, singing a carol and holding a big hamper for us. One by one, all seven found their own life-partners, got married and made their own separate nests. But we still had family gatherings, especially in December. Much more wrenching was the exodus of several of them later, to distant lands, although family ties have always remained as close as ever.
December 1993 was memorable, for all of them made it home for Christmas and the house rang once more with song and laughter and incessant chatter – this time, we filled three whole pews in church on Christmas morning. Most unforgettable was December 2004 when the whole lot came together again, our eldest grand-daughter bringing her Australian husband who fitted in so well. Husband’s 90th birthday celebration that year was spectacular, with our adult children presenting a programme they had secretly rehearsed, depicting their father’s life, and some of the episodes they acted were hilarious.
We didn’t know then that it was to be the last birthday and Christmas he would celebrate on earth and all of us look back on that time with great thankfulness to God for the joy we shared. Then the tsunami struck on December 26th, which made us keep quiet about our family’s happiness just prior to that immense tragedy.
Christmas as a widow, after having shared the previous 58 Christmases with a beloved spouse, seemed daunting. But I hadn’t reckoned with the healing touch of this blessed event and the love that poured out from family and friends.
It’s nine days to Christmas 2007 as I write this. It’s strange to be alone in a house that once held nine of us plus my parents. There is the added disappointment caused by the fact that I expected to be in Australia at this time, for a partial family reunion in our eldest son’s home in Sydney, and I am still here, waiting for an elusive visa. It’s a toss-up whether I will be in Sydney for Christmas, or right here. My youngest son, the only one of the four boys who still resides in Sri Lanka, came from Kandy to give me his company for a couple of days.
He offered to do anything that needed doing and I asked whether he would arrange the crib. He has placed the little wooden manger in a central position, with the beasts of the stall, the shepherds and wise men, ranged around Mary and Joseph and the Christ-Child.
That is what Christmas is all about, whatever enticing distractions the commercial world may surround it with. I look at the little manger scene and feel peace and joy. I treasure the words our son, Ranjan, wrote to me: “Wherever we are, the magical childhood that Thatha and you created for us, and particularly the memories of Christmas, will always remain with us.”
Christmas is a recurring miracle for which I thank God.
“How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in.”