I did follow the traditions all right. I fell down while hanging the mistletoe and kissed my bruised fingers. I decorated my almost-skeletal Christmas tree with dusty baubles. I remembered to add the little angel on top ( never mind it looked like a rag doll). I even took out empty boxes, wrapped them up in silver paper and tied red ribbons in some fancy Celtic knots and put them near the fireplace and pretended those were the gifts from Santa Claus.
Mind you, I never ever believed in Santa Claus. Not even when I was a kid. Blame it on my scientific background. When you have a mathematician for a father and chemists for your relatives, you learn to question every natural phenomena before you can count two plus two. The legend of Santa Claus was simply implausible to the mind of a five-year old.
Judging from the pictures, he was possibly obese and the chimney of course, too narrow for his enormous girth. And even if he went on diet, the fireplace would suffocate him and burn him. His reindeer wouldn’t survive in the tropical climate, and modern day science wasn’t advanced enough to build a flying sledge. Also, the consequences of overpopulation was drilled into me even before I discovered birth control, and I calculated and surmised that it was impossible for one bearded-old man to go around each and every household on the planet, bringing gifts for the children, that too within a single night. Besides, with inflation and recession and whatever terrible thing that was happening to humanity, according to my Dad at the breakfast table, even if this Santa guy offered everyone the cheapest toffee, the expenses would be to extravagant.
And my gifts were expensive. Mattel Barbie dolls and remote controlled aeroplanes that could actually fly did not come from the charity of St.Nicholas but from a little toy store aptly called “Wonderland” that I visited every other week. I knew the way I knew that that everything was made up of atoms and leaves must fall in autumn, that there was no such person as Santa Claus but only people like my parents who pretended to be Santa for the sake of their children so they could be Santa for their children and so on. Which was all very ridiculous.
My parents realized that and soon enough, I was ordering my own customized presents each Christmas. That made me both incredibly happy and immensely sad at the same time, because it meant I could never be disappointed or surprised, because I got exactly what I thought I wished for, even when I had no idea what to wish for. And that would have nearly killed the spirit of Christmas, had it not been for my mother’s splendid fruit cakes.
I have always loved fruit cakes more than the normal pastry counterparts. There was something tragically artificial about the latter, with their pre-defined flavors and the unhealthy quantity of whipped cream inside. But with the fruit cake or the Dundee cake or the humble plum cake, there was always an element of magic. The aroma of that mum-made freshly-baked Christmas cake immediately conjured up images of a medieval orchard, of two children hiding behind the pumpkin patch or stealing apples and hunting for nuts and berries in an autumn wilderness. I thought of all the ingredients inside the cake, the way they blended and intermixed with each other and I thought of my mother toiling away the December afternoon, in a soot-stained apron, measuring the flour, cracking the eggs and pouring in the vanilla essence. And when it finally emerged from the oven, neatly wrapped and covered, like a secret package, and my mother added the final touches, the little cracks on its brownish surface, the unevenness of it, fascinated me in a way no Christmas fairytale could, because the cake wasn’t perfect, but it was more real than anything else in the world and that was all that mattered.
Later when my parents took me to a cathedral, and after I got over all the awe and excitement at seeing the marvelously painted postcard-pretty stained glass windows, I prayed to the God or Jesus (I wasn’t sure I believed in either of them), that every Christmas of my life, would have my mum bake a fruit cake that the whole family would share for lunch. I was completely sure that my wish would come true because everything else that day seemed so beautiful. My parents weren’t bickering, the cathedral was majestic and the choir were singing all my favorite carols and even when I ran across the marble floors like I was skating, the guard didn’t even bat an eyelid. I even lost my Santa hat on the road and my parents promptly brought a new one. Christmas was such a perfect day to wish for a perfect present.
Later I realized what a fool I’d been. I’d always wanted to believe the things I never could fully believe in. I knew Santa Claus wasn’t real, but some broken part of me, wanted him to be, the way I knew my perfect family wasn’t real, but I desperately wished it to be. So when my parents had a nasty fight, and all the Christmas decorations came tumbling down and the glass shattered and my mum spent the night silently crying next to me and I spent the night hopelessly staring at the ceiling and my dad spent the night cursing everything, I realized I had to just run away or hang myself, because I was only ten years old and there was nothing else in the world I could do. I couldn’t see the point of a Christmas without a family, and I couldn’t see the point of a life without a family and I couldn’t see the point of a family in a room bereft of love and I couldn’t see the point of being alive in a room without love unless I found a new room, which I never did.
But my thirteenth and fourteenth years passed away without a Harley Davidson and with me being a rebel without a cause, singing songs with politically-charged lyrics because they comforted me the way Jingle Bells or Feliz Navidad never could.
But turning eighteen brought a strange realization, that finally I wasn’t bound to any childish beliefs, that I could choose my own life if I dared to, and I could simply run away if I was selfish enough. But somehow I couldn’t wish for a Harley Davidson this Christmas, because though I’d grown up, I hadn’t grown out of my habit of pretending and in the perfect make-believe world I made up, rag dolls could still be angels and there was a Santa in everyone, and maybe I could make the fruit cake for my family this year and maybe, just maybe my family would be perfect, for at least that one day and I would feel that happiness I felt when I saw a stained glass window for the first time and was mesmerized by the shimmering colors etched onto the cracked glass.
Previously published in Quail Bell Magazine