Crackle, creak, crunch, crack – just four of the sounds recorded on the domestic Christmas soundrack. Everyday sounds, but tuned to a thrilling pitch for the season of surprises, gifts and merriment. There’s the Crackle of cellophane and wrapping paper as invisible hands behind locked doors dress up gifts for the Christmas Tree and the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The Creaking Almirah


Crackle, creak, crunch, crack – just four of the sounds recorded on the domestic Christmas soundrack. Everyday sounds, but tuned to a thrilling pitch for the season of surprises, gifts and merriment.

There’s the Crackle of cellophane and wrapping paper as invisible hands behind locked doors dress up gifts for the Christmas Tree and the Christmas Breakfast Table. There’s the Creak, as the wrapped goodies are placed on the top shelf of your great-grandparents’ wardrobe and the door shut slowly and the key turned. There’s the Crunch, as invisible midnight feet making their stealthy way in the dark towards the Tree step (ouch!) on an egg-shell bauble left lying on the floor. And there’s the Crack that comes the next day, when the bonbons are pulled apart and the nutcracker breaks open the imported walnuts, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.

There are dozens of other sounds we associate with Christmas, taking us from Cooking to Carolling, but the Crackle, Creak, Crunch and Crack are sounds to quicken the pulse. These are the noises of secrecy, of rustlings at midnight, the hour of St Nicholas.

Younger Brother, who has a keen sense of atmosphere and a sharp eye for the artistic detail, called our attention to the Christmas phenomenon of the Creaking Almirah. He had spotted it in the pages of Dr. Lucian de Zilwa’s remarkable autobiography, “Scenes of a Lifetime.” The gynaecologist who built Tintagel, the Rosmead Place mansion that was the de Zilwa family home in the ‘30s (and later home to three Sri Lankan prime ministers), describes Christmas visits in Wolvendahl and Pettah in the 1880s. The child Lucian would wait patiently, licking crumbs of Love Cake and Christmas Cake off his fingers while his parents exchanged pleasantries with aunts and uncles. The climax of the visit was when the aunt or uncle disappeared into the depths of the house, from where would come the sound of a creaking almirah, the signal that gifts were on the way. Those who celebrate Christmas know what it is to wait for the sound of the creaking almirah.

There were ancient creaking almirahs in every bedroom in our home, and they would have all creaked in their turn around midnight on Christmas Eve, as we slept on oblivious.

Mother protected the fragile secret of Santa like a rare and precious egg that could drop and smash with the slightest careless move. She kept the secret for years. It was through no slip on her part that the Santa illusion was destroyed. An 11-year-old classmate did that for us. When we came home and confronted Mother with the great Christmas deception, she was as upset as we were. After the sense of hurt and betrayal passed, it was time to wonder at the ingenuity of the parent(s) who had sustained the Santa illusion all through our childhood.

For the longest time, we could not figure out how Mother had pulled off the Santa stunt. If it was she who had bought and brought all those toys, books, boxes of toffees and cylinders of fireworks, when did she buy them, where did she hide them, and how did she bring them into the house in the first place without us knowing? We were always there to meet Mother when she returned from shopping, and we inspected every bag. There was no way she could have smuggled in all those goodies without us noticing. The most memorable Santa gifts were large and bulky and impossible to hide, like the Red Car parked under the Tree when we were five years old, and the Deck Chair for reading when we were nine. Small items like story books, Dinky toys, Let’s-Play-Doctor sets, and card packs were easy to hide.

There had to be Colluding Parties. Older Brother started to help Mother do Santa the year a classmate destroyed his Grand Santa Illusion, punctured like a bicycle tyre. He was 13 years old when that happened.

Here is how the Santa Trick was done: Mother would stop the taxi or rickshaw at the top of 37th Lane and send the driver or rickshaw-puller to the house to alert Older Brother and the Servants, who would run up the lane and take custody of the gifts. Mother would then arrive in the house, and while she distracted us with a box of marzipan, the gift-carriers would slip in through the back door and stuff the bags and boxes into the bedroom almirahs. It was an adroit, well-timed operation.

Before Older Brother and the Servants, there was Dr. F. N. Spittel, named Noel because he was born on Christmas Day. He lived in the twin house next door. Uncle Noel was an agnostic, but he gave Christmas gifts and was always grateful for Mother’s homemade Christmas Cake. Dr. Spittel’s immediate neighbours were Shelagh Roberts, music teacher, and Renee Ludowyke, Retired Matron, Welisara Chest Hospital. They occupied the other half of Dr. Spittel’s house. All were complicit in keeping Santa alive and well. They wrapped the gifts from Santa and passed them over the dividing wall late on Christmas Eve, while we slept through the whispers, chuckles and creaking almirahs.

One year there was a grand children’s Christmas party next door, given by the Misses Roberts and Ludowyke. Shelagh was a daughter of the Galle District judge and cricketer T. W. Roberts, and sister of librarian-writer Norah Roberts; Renee was the sister of E. F. C. (Lyn) Ludowyke, Shakespeare scholar and Professor of English at the University of Ceylon. The two blithe spinsters invited all the children they knew, and that included Younger Brother and self. We looked like a little army of elves in the garden. Santa Claus arrived by aeroplane. An aircraft with winking lights had flown overhead while the elves were playing. Five minutes later, the Jolly Gentleman in Red turned up in Renee Ludowyke’s black Morris Minor. He had a white beard and a strong tropical tan under his lovi-lovi red outfit. He spoke with a Ceylonese accent and drank a glass of lovi-lovi milk wine. When it was time to hand out the gifts, the Misses Roberts and Ludowyke produced a bulging sack that must have been lying in an almirah. Santa dipped in his gloved hand and pulled out the goodies. Ours was a book about pirates. The party was magic, with lots of crackling, cracking, crunching and crashing.

Almirahs too must make it into wish lists for Christmas and other special occasions. They make solid and enduring giveaways. The mirrored rosewood almirah in our bedroom, for example, was a gift to Mother from her parents for winning a double-scholarship to study music in England. The 150-year-old ebony almirah in Father’s room was a gift from his grandparents. Older Brother had an inherited glass-front almirah in which he kept his plastic model airplanes, swimming trophies, seashells and Biggles books. Younger Brother and Mother shared a colossal heirloom almirah.

If you are not Sri Lankan, you may be creaking in your chair with curiosity about the unfamiliar “almirah”. The word should carry a faint linguistic echo to those who speak Portuguese or French. “Almaariya” is the Sinhala rendering of “armario”, Portuguese for wardrobe, or cupboard, cabinet, tallboy, locker, sideboard – those sturdy pieces of colonial and mock-colonial furniture found in every second Sri Lankan home. “Almirah” is the Anglicised armario. If you are French, you would say “armoire.” It won’t be long before ALMIRAH makes it into an English dictionary. That book would make a fine Christmas gift for the peoples of the Commonwealth.

May the shelves of every Almirah-Almaariya-Armario-Armoire creak and groan and even crash under the tremendous weight of goodies this Christmas.

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