Christmas In Anglo-India
By Joyce Mitchell
When I was a little girl I grew up in a land I call Anglo-India. It was a very special land which mixed the cultures and customs of two great countries - England and India. It does not exist any more because history came along and changed the land of my childhood, dividing the people. Some packed their belongings and set sail for a new beginning across the seas in England, whilst others remained behind and became absorbed in the new, vibrant and throbbing Republic of India.
My favourite times when I was small, were the many festivals we observed. There were Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Jain and Christian holidays, plus the compulsory New Year’s Day, Easter and Christmas holidays the British rulers introduced throughout India. These festivals followed each other at intervals so there was always something exciting to look forward to.
My family kept up the Christian festivals. Christmas was a very special time for the whole Railway Colony where we lived. Late in November a committee would meet to plan for a week of festivities for Christmas. Two of the Railway wives would volunteer to go by train to Bombay - a journey of 400 miles which took a day and a half - to buy the toys, special ingredients for Christmas puddings and treats like bonbons and balloons. Each family paid a fixed sum for the week’s entertainment which included a gift for each child under fourteen years of age, refreshments and prizes.
My sister and I always had new dresses for Christmas, as did our cousins and friends. We could not wait to show them off on Christmas Eve, the culmination of the week’s activities.
During the preceding week there were programmes for both children and adults so that everyone had a good time. There were races for the children and a fancy dress party; the adults had a fancy-dress cricket match where the men would dress as ladies and vice-versa and it was great fun to watch our uncles and fathers tottering around the cricket field in high-heeled shoes, hats and gloves, their skirts stopping them from running fast, and our mothers and Aunts in trousers, easily out-running and out-batting the men. At half-time, the bowling team would serve the fielding team with fresh nimbu pani (lemonade) and hot tea, and we on-lookers were treated to all kinds of cakes and tasty sandwiches There were treasure hunts for the children and tennis an badminton tournaments for the adults and Whist and Housie nights.
Christmas Eve was when Father Christmas arrived to hand out the gifts. We would gather at the playground of the Institute at 4 p.m. and wait expectantly. Soon we heard the strident music of the Nankati Band - made up of motley Hindu musicians who used brass instruments and a loud pair of drums, playing Sousa marches and, as they got nearer, they belted out “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “He”s a Jolly Good Fellow.” The procession came into view - the band, all dressed up in white and red like toy soldiers, marching stiffly and blowing loudly, followed by the Maharaja’s pride and joy, his ceremonial elephant.
Mr. Elephant was all decked out in his festival coverings with gay bells tinkling from the head-covering and a necklace around his neck. He also wore enormous brass anklets with bells the size of golf balls which jingled with each slow, measured step. On his back sat the Mahout (the elephant driver) in his red costume, flourishing his hooked brass stick to prod Mr. Elephant if he slowed down too much. And behind him, sitting in a howdah (a sort of playpen), swaying precariously, hanging on with one hand to the rope holding the howdah in place and balloons in the other, was Father Christmas, saying “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
Father Christmas’ red-and-white traditional outfit, complete with cotton beard was imported from England, so except for the fact that he arrived on an elephant, he could be Father Christmas anywhere in the world! The elephant was followed by a motley group of urchins, beggars and hangers-on, who added to the noise and excitement.
The elephant continued sedately to the centre of the playground and then stopped, looking about him curiously. The Mahout prodded the elephant gently, commanding him to kneel. The elephant obeyed and went down on his front knees. Father Christmas, and the howdah, all slid to the front.
“Be careful mahout” Father Christmas said in Hindi, adding a timorous “ho-ho-ho” as he clung desperately to the rope.
“Don’t be afraid, sahib, the elephant is used to carrying the Maharaja, and he is very gentle. I am in complete control. Just hold on and I’ll help you down.” The mahout shouted over the hullabaloo.
By then the elephant had settled down on his back legs and was kneeling on all fours. The mahout jumped nimbly off and unhooked the ladder fastened to the side of the howdah. Placing it firmly on one side of the elephant, he helped Father Christmas descend the four rungs.
We surrounded Father Christmas, jumping and hopping excitedly. There were about forty of us Railway children, all in party clothes, accompanied by our ayahs and bearers. The band, a few yards away, had stopped playing. The onlookers at the Institute gates edged closer to watch the fun.
evening, Father Christmas!”
It was hot and dusty standing there in the afternoon sun and Father Christmas wiped the sweat from his face.
“I have presents in the sack for you and you and you…” he said as he ruffled Brenda’s hair, pinched Lali’s cheek and patted Kushroo. “Now, let’s see what I have in my pocket” He pulled out a handful of boiled sweets and threw them way up in the air, like confetti. We rushed to gather the sweets. It was a good way to disperse the children, so that he could make his way to the Institute building for the festivities.
The grown-ups were waiting in the shade of the verandah, sipping shandies and chatting. As he walked along Father Christmas handed balloons to a few children in the arms of their ayahs.
I was jumping up and down and the frills on my blue and white silk dress jumped up and down with me. I wanted to get close to the elephant and feel his wrinkly skin. I dragged my Humpty-Dumpty little brother, Patrick aged four, with me. Daphne, my older sister stood back with our ayah.
Father Christmas held up his hand, motioning us to be quiet. “I have a very special announcement to make,” he said. “The Maharaja has given permission for you children to have rides on the elephant.” Ten children at a time over the next hour. Around the playground. Mr. Fern will be in charge. Only those children under fourteen, whose parents have signed up for the Christmas festivities can go - no ayahs or bearers!”
We shrieked with excitement. My cousin Floyd and I were right up there in front, pulling Patrick with us. Ayah shouted at the top of her shaky voice: “Now you be careful Joyce. Look after Patrick. Daphne doesn’t want to go. I wish the Memsahib was near so she could take the responsibility. If anything happens, they’ll blame me,” she tailed off in a wail.
The other servants were calling out to their charges, and we jostled each other noisily, trying to get in front of the line. Father Christmas was forgotten and he escaped into the Institute to have a cool drink and recover from the ride.
Mr. Ferns and the mahout helped us climb onto the elephant’s back. We were packed like sardines into two rows of five, back to back, our legs dangling over the side of the howdah.
“Now! There will be no rowdy behaviour. No rocking the howdah. You must listen to the mahout. So, off you go.” said the hot and harried Mr. Ferns. None of us had ridden an elephant before. We giggled apprehensively.
“My Daddy went on a tiger hunt and rode and elephant,” said Prem Lal. “He’s the doctor-sahib and often goes to the Palace. He’s the Maharaja’s friend.”
As the elephant rose on his two front feet, we were all thrown backwards, and let out squeals of fright. As he straightened his back legs, we were thrown forward. Then he righted himself and so did we on the howdah. The mahout shouted words of encouragement, and we were on our way, swaying forward, backwards and sideways. It was rather like being on a swing except you stayed up and never came down.
Patrick, good-natured as always waved at everyone and called out to his urchin friends. He was dressed in his red velvet suit which was a replica of the Little Lord Fauntleroy painting in our sitting room. I thought he looked funny in his knee-length pants, frilled white shirt and red jacket. He kept wriggling and waving with both hands.
“Keep still” I yelled in his ear. He just laughed and kept on squirming, and before we could stop it, he began to slowly slide down the elephant’s side. There was a great “aaahh” from the crowd and Mr. Ferns froze. Just at that moment, my Uncle E.C. was walking past on his way to the Insititute. He looked up, stepped close to the elephant, held out his arms and Patrick tumbled right into them!
My heart, which had almost stopped beating, started thump, thump, thumping with relief. “Patrick is safe!” I thought,, “What an adventure to tell them when we get home.”
By the time we descended from our ride, Father Christmas had taken his place on the stage and was sitting in a chair under a tree which had been freshly cut to serve as a Christmas Tree. It was decorated with paper chains Chinese paper lanterns, coloured lights and there was cotton on the branches for snow. There were great piles of gaily wrapped packages around the foot of the tree and several large coloured boxes with labels: infants, girls, infants, boys, all the way up to 14 years. Each child got to pick a number from the appropriate box which corresponded with a gift from the tree.
“Please, please let me get a baby doll this time,” I prayed, silently. “Please, no tea sets or games or books. I only want a doll.”
In the middle of the large hall was a long decorated table with chairs on either side. We were invited to sit down to a sumptuous Christmas spread of cake and biscuits, sandwiches, curry puffs, sweetmeats and cold drinks. Most of us were too excited to eat and waited eagerly for our names to be called for the drawing of the presents.
An eternity seemed to pass before it was my turn. I ran up to the stage. Father Christmas held the box which was labeled: girls, 6 to 8 years. I closed my eyes and picked the number 15.
Mrs. Campbell, who was helping Father Christmas, walked to the pile of presents and picked out a large, flat box. My heart sank. I knew by the shape that it was not a doll. My eyes blurred. I choked down my disappointment, remembered to say “thank you”, took the package and walked slowly back to my chair,, dragging my feet.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” said Daphne.
“Open it, open your present,” said my cousin Eva.
Ayah saw my face and knew I was ready to cry. She hugged me, smothering my face in her sari. “Never mind,” she whispered. “Maybe Daphne will get a doll, then you both can share. Why don’t you see what you have?”
I tore the wrapping paper and peeked inside the box. “It’s a china tea-set.” I said.
Everyone crowded around me to look at the pretty miniature tea set. There was a dainty blue and white teapot and pretty flowered cups and saucers. I began to feel better. I looked across the table at Brenda who had just come back with her present. It was a badminton bat and shuttlecocks. She leaned over and fingered one of the teacups, and I could tell she’d rather have had my gift. When it was Daphne’s turn, she was more disappointed that I was, as she got a skipping rope. She couldn’t skip. The only happy person was Patrick. He got a wind-up monkey which clapped cymbals and hopped about shaking its head.
Seven o’clock. Time to go home. It got dark at 6.30, so Enaus, our cook, came with his lantern to guide us home.
We settled for a late-evening nap as we had to wake up in time to walk to St. Anne’s Church for Midnight Mass. It was exciting to go to bed and wake up in the dark and walk to church with Enaus leading the way with his lantern. The Church’s roof was outlined with tiny oil lamps and inside there was a manger scene near the altar. My Grandmother had been practising all month for the solo she sang in Latin before Communion and my Grandfather was already there when we arrived, sitting in the pew in the 2nd row.
I dozed through the Mass, especially the sermon but enjoyed the Christmas Carols which ended the service. We wished our family and friends and went home to celebrate with hot cocoa, punch and biscuits.