Charlie likes to take her handbag with her. It is a small bag, but it carries her whimsical choices well enough. These past few days, as she accompanied her parents on various errands, she decided that she was also on a mission. She was going to give everyone they met, friend or stranger, a present. And so, before leaving home, she would scamper off to the neighbour’s flower bed and pick a handful of ixoras.
To her hustling, harried mother, it came as a soothing reminder of the spirit of the season, that first time Charlie reached into her bag and surprised her by presenting a couple of the slightly crushed ixoras to someone in a store.
She had no inkling what was going through her four-year-old daughter’s mind, but it made her pause and reflect on what she believed the season to be really about. Charlie’s grandmother died earlier this year, and among the many fine qualities she had, was a love for plants and flowers. No Christmas would be complete for her if she did not have a bouquet of chrysanthemums adorning the household. Amidst the flurry of the season, compounded by major kitchen renovations, her daughter could not even begin to imagine a Christmas at her father’s home without chrysanthemums, and it was there, at the flower shop, that Charlie presented her first ixora.
Perhaps she had absorbed a sense that flowers were integral to Christmas; perhaps she had observed the thoughtful generosity of her parents in their daily lives and felt that giving something was a way to emulate their conduct; perhaps she is just a regular little child, innocently following an instinct that has not been drained by her environment. Who is to say?
Christmas and the season mean many different things to people. In this society where we are graced with the presence of such an abundance of met cultures, most of us move easily between diverse celebrations and festivals. The widespread participation in this season may have a lot to do with the diverse concepts surrounding it, notwithstanding its religious base.
If you ask people what Christmas means to them, the range of answers can be quite broad. Common among them are the themes of family, food, friends, presents, parties and of course, the ubiquitous home renewal activities.
Food, it seems, tops the list in terms of defining Christmas. There was a time, not so long ago, when the appearance of apples and grapes, butter cookies and peardrax were the signs that the season was upon us. Although they are now available throughout the year, they still represent the time of year for many households and are a vital part of setting up the festive scenario.
I can’t imagine Christmas without the smell of ham and homemade bread filling the house, said a friend. He remembers how as a child, those scents mingled with that of fresh paint, accompanied by radio renditions from the classic crooners like Frank Sinatra, Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole and so on. Nowadays, the musical fare is much more local, and you can’t go anywhere without hearing Baron’s “ooday-ooday” piercing the air.
In our home, every Christmas Eve, my mother would bake bread and roast a stuffed chicken. It was the thing I looked forward to the most. My mother’s stuffing was magical. Over the years I have tried to make it like hers.
I can never get it the same way, but have come up with a dish that comes close, and now, I have become the one in the family who makes that chicken and stuffing for Christmas. I still cannot do a decent bread—I am too uncomfortable handling flour—but I try to recapture that atmosphere that my mum made for us, no matter how tight things were.
She still does hers every year, and she knows that no matter what, a taste of it is all I need to feel complete. My siblings and I agree that, no matter what else is on the menu, lavish or not, nothing completes Christmas like that simple fare which takes us back to a cosy, carefree time in our lives.
I think at the heart of it what people try to connect to each season is something from their childhood—some aspect of the season that filled them with the feeling of being special. If you listen to the things that mean Christmas, you will hear the nostalgia, feel the wistfulness, and even the raw pleasure of being able to revisit that time and space.
I know for many it was not a happy time, and in adulthood, they either shun it, or work very hard to create and define what they wanted the season to be for them in their lost childhoods.
Sometimes we get tangled up and fall for the commercial narratives that it is all about material things.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug’.” That first line is from the classic, “Little Women,” which takes the reader on a lovely journey towards discovering an entirely different concept of what it really means.