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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

‘Tis the Season…

Days of Future Past

Some sort of a sweet foreboding sweeps over me in this season of glad tidings and joy. I get transported back to Chicago when our daughters were still in the single digits, age wise. Especially the music and the warmth, even though the temperature outside was four Celsius below zero. I think back to the days, hoping with my girls for a white Christmas so they and their mother and I could build a snowman or at the very least, throw snowballs at each other or my girls could make angels in the snow.

Christmas Eve, we sat at the kitchen table while Mom baked cookies and the girls helped. The stereo played “Jingle Bell Jazz” and we sang along about Rudolph and Frosty and sleigh bells. We ate the cookies, warm from the oven with hot chocolate to drink. “Dad,” the girls chorused in unison, “we have to save some for Santa Claus.”

So we put a bunch of cookies and a glass of milk on the kitchen table, I snuck a scotch and we ate Cornish Hen stuffed with chestnuts with a side of  boiled sweet potato  and topped it off with Mom’s fabulous dessert. And we said to ourselves, what a wonderful world! We stared longingly at the presents under the Christmas tree in the living room, bundled ourselves and drove to church for midnight mass.

Coming back, we fell upon our presents. Thanks to their mother, the girls got environmentally friendly presents like wooden Scandinavian toys while I got them crass American gifts like a cat and a robot that responded to voice commands. We still have the wooden toys that our granddaughter, Kiara, plays with.

Decades later, we wonder what gifts we can get for our granddaughter. We wanted to get her a pedal car but it wasn’t available. A store in Khan Market ordered one for us but when we went to pick it up, it was shabby and seemed to have been a sample piece, dirty and tacky. So our big plans for Kiara fell victim to the shoddy salesmanship of India’s disgusting, two-bit retail sector.

We banished the bitter experience aside to focus on the season. Christmas is about giving and receiving but most of all, it is about family and nostalgia. It’s a time when we put aside the cares and demands of reality and plunge into the world of Rudolph and Frosty and Santa Claus to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. My hope is in the grim reality of India our granddaughter  will actually believe in Santa Claus, like her mother and aunt did when growing up in Chicago.

As always, this Christmas Eve, we attended an early mass at the Vatican church in Lutyens Delhi. As always, we heard the proclamation of the mystery of faith as the choir sang “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The idea of a savior to guide you through the thickets of ethics and morality is seductive, even for gray-haired men who value rationalism.  The quid pro quo is faith. In my understanding, this savior asks you to believe in compassion and communion. I’m good with that. So I’m happy to go to church Christmas Eve and participate in the rituals that celebrate peace and goodwill.

Amazingly even our daughters, who are like me: rational skeptics, always come to church Christmas Eve...our younger one comes all the way from Manhattan’s East Village.  To them, it is a family tradition to uphold. They dress up and accompany us to the high mass, just to be part of the concelebration. For years, they have come to midnight mass with us; the Vatican service is much earlier at 8 pm and that works well for the party animals we all are. Enough time to eat, drink and be merry and still be ready the next day for the decades-old tradition of Christmas lunch at our house.

When you think about it, the appeal to faith and tradition is an uplifting experience. The music, the food, family and friends and the dollops of camaraderie and nostalgia that seem to overwhelm the season make you soar above mundane cares. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.  Listen to “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” and let the eyes tear up; a tighter hug; a huge kiss; a warm embrace; mulled wine; a special table; family and friends. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.

Above all, Christmas is about continuity. We still make the sweets my daughters’ grandma made and the same food, if inflected with post modern fusion. We listen to the same music, traditional, jazz and classical, except on a state-of-the-art music system. The Christmas tree is the same except the ornaments now include little cutouts made by our granddaughter Kiara plus the lights are nicer.

Christmas is also about the passage of time.  Just recently, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a South African commentator told the BBC that in Africa death was not just about mourning a loss but also a celebration of ancestors. “Mandela has become an ancestor,” he said, “and that is a cause for joy.” Christmas is a reminder that if you keep the faith and continue the tradition, you will too become an ancestor. For us, Christmas evokes my wife’s mother who carried the standard and became an ancestor.

On this foggy Christmas eve, when Santa’s on his way, my fervent hope is my wife and I become ancestors, remembered and honored…not because of any achievements or accouterments but because we enhanced the tradition and kept the faith.