The reminiscences come crowding back at that time of year when dusk begins an earlier descent. The scent and smog of wood-smoke creep imperceptibly over the terrain and flocks of migratory birds raise their wings heavenward. It is then that nostalgia stirs out of its somnolence, and ghosts of Christmases past deliver their haunting gusts!
The first-off memory is the image of a corpulent, whiskered creature in an ill-fitting red suit, usually inebriated, tumbling off a motorcycle on to a grassy lea while ringing a mammoth brass bell!
This creature, however, did not organically meander into a festive meadow. He was the end result of meticulous planning by a bevy of eager-beaver mothers anxious to gift their children the time of their lives!
The planning of a grand Christmas party
As with all club ‘dos’ along the tea belts of India, Christmas parties for children began with a meeting convened by the Lady or Catering Member of the respective club. It was at this highly animated, sometimes agitated, meeting that the prologue to the party actually unfolded.
Party decorations were discussed, entertainment avenues examined, menus mooted, programmes parleyed, and responsibilities distributed among the throng of ladies.
Santa’s mothballed costume was physically exhumed from its trunk and given a good shake. Last but not the least, monumental discussions centred around which unfortunate bachelor member of the club should receive the dubious honour of wearing it!
One year, at one of our clubs, I recall we had an enthusiastic lady with the perfect dimensions to play Santa. Alas! Her light eyes were a dead giveaway, and though she valiantly tried to disguise her voice, the suspicious and cynical among the youth brigade glimpsed through her façade well before she reached the porch jangling her brass bell! Cries of “Auntie, Auntie,” prefixed by her name, accompanied her all the way to the dais in the main hall. But silence reigned supreme once she began rummaging through the sack of Christmas gifts!
Fun and games for children of all age groups
The children’s party at the club would begin early in the afternoon on the sun dappled lawns. Dressed in their Sunday best, the children would participate in various outdoor games like the sack race, the potato and spoon race and a variety of obstacle races. Often, an elephant would also be clambering around, mahout perched reassuringly above, giving rides to all and sundry, including adults.
As daylight receded, activities would move into the great hall where games such as passing the parcel and musical chairs would ensue. These were a huge draw and were usually played under a towering goodie bag lovingly crammed with lightweight gifts.
Jingle bells and here comes Santa
The tintinnabulation of a bell would announce the arrival of Santa Claus. Since our bungalow was closest to the club, we often had the pleasure of hosting Santa and his best man/Man Friday/general factotum.
He would then change into his suit and swaddle his jowls with clumps of virginal-white cotton wool. The unfortunate bachelor would then willy-nilly switch from a cup of the estate’s finest tea to the finest alcohol to fortify himself for the ordeal ahead.
Imagine the horror of having no kids of your own and having to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of a whole populace of them! When sufficiently warmed by the spirit within him, he would clamber pillion on the motorcycle behind his general factotum and be drunkenly swayed away in the general direction of the club, mine host tailing the pair to prevent any mishap en route.
All activities would halt at the tolling of Santa’s bell, and a swarm of kids would race excitedly towards its source, followed by their parents. Like Pied Piper, a glazed-eyed Santa would reel and stagger his way into the clubhouse, manfully roaring “Ho Ho Ho!” at short intervals, followed by a long and chattering juvenile crocodile. To be honest, the Santas of my memory always sounded cheerful and full of beans. Their facial expressions, completely eclipsed by hoary beards, were less easy to decode; and any nervous tics and tremors were completely camouflaged by the baggy red suit!
A sack full of Christmas gifts
Of course, it was the parents that provided the gifts that Santa so liberally received gratitude for! Clear-cut instructions ensured that gifts did not exceed a designated price range, so that no great disparity existed between the gifts each child received. Santa would be seated, while Man Friday would delve into the cavernous sack at his feet and hand out a package at a time to him. Santa would then expand his vocabulary ever so slightly by interspersing his “Ho Ho Ho!” with the names of the children!
Once all the enthusiasm had died down, tea would be served for the children around the tables in the especially decorated children’s room. The adults would then follow in the main dining area that was also beautifully bedecked in Christmas colours.
A towering Christmas tree formed an interesting focal point in the children’s room. It glittered glittering with decorations accumulated over the years, and carefully placed under lock and key by the club babu after the party. A stocking for each child held gifts and trinkets provided by the club, the purchase for which groups of ladies had driven to Hong Kong Market in Siliguri. I clearly remember an enterprising lady from a nearby garden knitting colourful stockings as a labour of love for all our offspring. She typified the essential spirit of Christmas by her selfless deed.
A sumptuous treat awaited kids and adults alike
Reams could be written about the menu on offer at the children’s party. No matter the club, the ladies went overboard to ensure an elegant and colourful spread that stretched over several adorned trestle tables! It is a sad regret that we did not value our talents highly enough to photograph the creations we churned out as a matter of course in those ‘olden day’ children’s parties! At any given time, there would be no fewer than eight large, stupendously decorated Christmas cakes gracing the tables.
When my seasonal ghosts disperse for a nanosecond, I see Instagram pictures of sickly over-boiled peas or char-browned tandoori chicken proudly flaunted by mindless cooks, and I rue the fact that the ladies of tea, yours truly included, had neither the inclination nor the facilities to exhibit the high quality of viands and victuals crafted by them!
With the bursting of the goodie bags and the ensuing scramble for more booty, the party would come to a rip-roaring end for our children. For us, the parents, it was time to turn up the music, put on our dancing shoes and incinerate the calories of all the delectable goodies that we had consumed under sprigs of faux mistletoe and festoons of cascading streamers and balloons!