Meri Kishmish, everyone!

Recalling sweet memories of childhood celebrations of the season

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

My father was born on December 25, many moons ago. So growing up, I was never sure if my mother was celebrating his birthday or Christmas that day every year. 

British traditions were still very high at the army cantonments where my father, a defence scientist, used to be posted from time to time. Add to that the army tradition of sarva dharma sambhava and the club used to come alive with Christmas trees and fairy lights, cakes and cookies, roasts and puddings. Those are wonderful, enduring childhood memories that render me very nostalgic at this time every year.

Now, my father’s orderly would borrow some of the Christmas tree ornaments and Christmas lights from the club and the rose bushes in our garden would soon begin to twinkle and glow with the lights and ornaments.

The garden was bordered by palm fronds and the huge one in the centre would serve as our Christmas tree each year. Santa, of course,  left a crate full of toys under the Christmas tree for children of the club members, but so did my mother – for my father – under our palm frond. And over the years they were joined by gifts for us from our parents playing Santa Claus.

So one can imagine how confusing it was to the under-10 children in the family--was it Christmas or was it something else? 

The confusion was even more because my father’s khansama, who he had inherited from a British officer and who had been trained in the best of British culinary art and tradition, always baked an enormous iced cake on the day. Nothing like the cream and chocolate icing of the sophisticated cakes of today. It was home-made, crackly and crispy icing that splintered on the cake if you were not careful but was very  delicious to the palate.

In fact, the slight tangy lemony taste was  even more yummy than today’s cream and chocolate--we cracked that icing first and licked it off our fingers--that green or blue or pink icing had to be eaten to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘ finger-licking good’!  Our birthday cakes were never as good! 

When the khansama brought his annual Christmas cake into the dining room with a flourish, he always chanted “Meri Kishmish, sahib, memsahib, babylog!”

For years, I grew up wishing friends and people at the club a ‘Meri Kishmish’, until my father overheard me one day and sat me down to practise saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at least a 100 times so that I should finally get it right the next year. 

Now the Christmas toys and ornaments from our rose bushes and palm tree miraculously appeared in our drawing room a month later, as my mother  seamlessly went from celebrating a Christmas-y birthday to holding a haldi-kumkum gathering  post-Sankranti every January.

It is a ladies only kind of festival I have still not understood the significance of-- where all the menfolk and boys disappeared into the club and women and girls, dressed in their best Kanjivarams and frills, gathered around the decorations just to chit-chat or play.

Gifts had to be given at this festival too and all those who held haldi-kumkum gatherings at home followed in the club’s tradition of placing gifts for the little girls and their mothers, along with a coconut each, in huge crates under the shelves loaded with the toys and celebratory ornaments.

As we picked up one gift each and left the hostess’s home, a little kevda attar was applied to the back of our palms--the only tradition quite different from the previous month’s Christmas where we were bid goodbye with packets of cookies and a gentle kiss on the ladies’ palm backs by the reigning president of the club.

There was no prudishness, even in the 1960s and 1970s, no one said this was not Indian culture or tradition.

I long for those days to be back again but even as working women today have no time for leisurely haldi-kumkum gatherings (how many of my home-bound neighbour’s haldi-kumkums I missed over the years--she had to knock my door the next day to hand me my gift!), such elaborate celebrations at clubs too have disappeared. Or at least there are no longer roasts and turkeys (which used to once upon a time freely wander the club backyard awaiting becoming stuffed at Christmas) and there is not much interest in maintaining the Santa Claus tradition as it takes hours and hours of sitting in a hot costume noting down the children's wishes. 

I was 12 or 13 years old when I realised Santa Claus was actually the jolly and plump neighbourhood uncle but until then the magic of anticipation prevailed. I wish we could continue the same today, particularly for the poor children in our neighbourhoods, taking down their wishes and providing them with their most desired toys or even unexpected fulfilment of their hearts’ desires.

Only those who have lived through the magic of Santa Claus will understand the nostalgia. 

I do not see any religion behind these traditions, only good neigbourliness in sharing and caring, friendship and charity or good karma in helping the needy. These days I content myself with bingeing on Christmas movies on Neflix or Prime for ten days of the season.

But through the season, I still remember my father’s khansama and like him wish everybody, my father’s correction of my pronunciation notwithstanding, a Meri Kishmish!

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Published: 23 Dec 2022, 11:00 AM