I recently posted that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday of the year. We are now into the Christmas holiday season and I would have to say it ranks low on my list of favored holidays. This is all the more surprising because when I was growing up in Kenya, Christmas was a holiday that I looked forward to and of which I have joyous memories.

Of course, Christmas in Kenya was very different from that in the West and especially in the US. The holiday in Kenya was a family occasion and it was a time for going to church, carol singing, perhaps a nativity play, lots of great food on Christmas day when my mother would cook one of her famous biriyanis and we would invite a few close friends. Gift giving was almost a non-event and only very young children received gifts from “Father Christmas” – the Kenyan/Indian version of Santa Claus. Typically, not long after kids reached an age when they realized that there was no Father Christmas, gift giving at Christmas came to a halt and thereafter the only special occasion when kids would get gifts was on a birthday.

I recall the family receiving lots and lots of Christmas cards and the ones we received and sent had a distinctly religious slant since there was none of today’s politically correct view that Christmas cards should be non-religious – to suit the sensitivities of non-Christian recipients. There were so many cards received that after space on top of cabinets and other such locations was filled, they would then be stuck on a wall! The main rooms in the house would be decorated with streamers which really was the only type of affordable decoration available. There was no Christmas tree – after all, evergreens were not available in Kenya and there was no other tree that could take the place of the conventional Christmas tree in the West. If there were artificial Christmas trees available, I never saw one.

We were in a neighborhood where there were lots of other Indians residing – most of whom were Hindus. We would send food such as fruit cake (referred to as Christmas cake) and other culinary delights to some of the Hindu neighbors and friends – a reciprocation for the many North Indian sweets like ladoos, gulab jamun, jalebi, padas, etc that we received from them at Diwali. The baking of the Christmas cake was itself a family event. It was in the days before we had any mechanical devices to mix the cake batter and so we kids and our mother all took turns to mix the ingredients in a bowl until she decided that it was suitably mixed. It was a long, tedious process but the reward for the kids was being able to lick the batter that remained in the bowl after almost all of it had been put into baking pans!

Attending church on Christmas eve or Christmas day was an imperative and the entire family would attend church together. We went to an Anglican church in Mombasa – the equivalent of the Episcopalian church in the US. Most of the congregation was made up of Europeans – a term in Kenya that was used to describe any white person irrespective of their country of origin. In fact, most of the “Europeans” were, in fact, British since Kenya was then still a colony of the UK.

We dressed up in our finest and my most vivid memory of one of the services was my father – who was totally tone deaf – singing Christmas carols with gusto. He usually did not sing any of the hymns during regular services or if he did it was limited to just a very few hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” which was a hymn that he liked. But when it came to Christmas carols, he took a very different view …… it had nothing to do with his familiarity with the carols as much as his desire to get into the spirit of Christmas!

One Christmas, we were seated at a pew right behind an English family ……. the gentleman had a great bass voice and sang very well. My father, was not to be outdone in volume, even if he was completely off-key. In the process, he managed to throw this gentleman off tune much to his consternation. He would furtively glance behind from time to time to see who it was that was “savaging” well known Christmas carols. My father was oblivious to the attention that he was attracting but my mother – seated next to my father – would nudge him repeatedly to stop singing but it had no effect. We kids were hugely amused at my mother’s entreaties and our father’s insistence on continuing to sing. Later, after the service, in response to my mother’s finding fault with his insistence on singing out of tune, he argued that the important thing was the spirit of the occasion and not someone’s view of how a specific carol should be sung! As I reflect on this and my reaction and that of my siblings, I can’t help feeling that if I did the same thing my kids would probably go and sit somewhere else in the church – just not to be seen as associated with me!

Christmas in England in the sixties was a very toned down version of what it is in the US. More often than not I spent Christmas day, during my years in England, with my cousin, KC Alexander and his wife. The emphasis was on special dishes which had been cooked for the occasion. One Christmas, I and other colleagues (who were from abroad) at the office where I was training as a Chartered Accountant, were invited to the house of one of the principals, RW Leigh. He and his wife were Jewish and his act in inviting us for lunch was one of generosity and grace ……….. he felt that as foreign students far away from home we should not have to spend Christmas alone.

On another occasion, I spent Christmas with my elder brother George and his wife in Scotland with her parents. It was the first time that I ate haggis – a uniquely Scottish dish which was surprisingly tasty as long as one did not focus on its ingredients! Gift giving did not seem to be a major focus at Christmas during my years in England – in fact, any gifts given were opened on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas.

Once we moved to the US, the way Christmas was celebrated was really a bit of a culture shock. The entire emphasis seems to be on the commercial aspect – namely gift giving – and it often comes across as a case of consumerism gone haywire. When we first arrived in the US in the early seventies, it seemed like the Xmas season at department stores began after Thanksgiving. Over the past decade or so, it seems that the season starts earlier each year and the entire focus appears to be on shopping for gifts -with what amounts to almost a herd instinct when it comes to the purchase of gifts.

Quite honestly, other than gifts among immediate family, talk to just about anyone and the universal reaction seems to be that the whole business of buying gifts is a gigantic hassle. People don’t know what to get for others and so the entire effort becomes a major chore. Increasingly, there is a focus on getting people gift cards to specific stores or vendors so that they can choose to expend the funds as they deem fit ……… so it is not that there seems to be a whole lot of effort that goes into the thought process of what one should get for someone. I was telling a couple of people that if one is going to just give a gift card then why not just give them an equivalent amount in money! I guess doing that would remove the last vestige of something being an actual “gift”.

I guess in some ways this whole emphasis on gift giving is a function of an affluent society …………….. and the difficulty in finding a suitable gift is also a function of people being well off and usually having most of the necessities of life making it a real challenge to find a suitable gift that would be appreciated. It is said that 40% of the entire annual sales of most department stores, in the US, occurs between the day after Thanksgiving (around the latter part of November) and Christmas day. This provides a gauge of how much money is spent on gifts and how dependent commercial enterprises are on the Christmas season for sales and profits.

Amidst our prosperity and comfortable lifestyle, I cannot help feeling a sense of nostalgia for the Christmases of yesteryear – especially in Kenya – when the festival was celebrated in a much simpler manner with perhaps more of the spirit of Christmas being at the heart of the holiday.

6 Responses to “Christmas – Past & Present”

  1. Bava says:

    A very interesting article which brought back memories of my Christmas days in India . I was the one who did most of the beating of egg white and mixing of the incredients for the Christmas cake. Baking was done by fire on the bottom and top of the vessel- top by burning coconut husk on the lid of the vesseel. I believed that Christmas presents kept in Stockings were from Christmas Father until a cousin, 7 years older, explained that there was none and who brought the presents. Once I announced that I no more believed in Christmas Father I stopped getting christmas presents !

  2. TJ says:

    Your comment about the baking of cakes with heat at the top and bottom also brings back memories. In Kenya – around the early fifties – before we had an oven, this was how our cakes were baked. There was a source of heating – usually charcoal – on a lid on top of the pan and charcoal heating the bottom. How much charcoal to use and the level of heating was something that was entirely based on experience since there was no way of gauging the temperature!

    Someone else emailed me about my comment about streamers being used for decoration – I wish she had commented on the blog. What she said jogged my memory of how we did it as well. She said they used crepe paper and cut it to right width. One would then lengthen it, if necessary, by joining a second piece to the end of the first using wheat flour that was made into a paste of just the right consistency – as a cheap form of glue! It just goes to show how people went about economizing since glue – we called it gum – was available for purchase but obviously was not considered worth spending money on when there was a home made alternative!

    A different era – and certainly a simpler one in this and many other respects.

  3. saira says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Christmas these days. Because of all the hoopla on gifts and decorating and what not, the true meaning of “CHRIST”mas gets lost in the bustle…it’s very sad. I vote for no gifts, just charity donations next year…who’s with me?

  4. TJ says:

    What I’d prefer as an alternative to just donating to charity – which of course can be done – is to limit gifts to the kids who have obvious expectations and are more easily satisfied. The older generation, OTOH, should perhaps receive gifts only for birthdays. It does not prevent one giving a gift to someone at other times when one sees something that the recipient would likely appreciate – as opposed to having to find something suitable for Christmas. But, Saira, compared to the number of gifts you give to family/friends/in-laws etc, I get off relatively easy!

  5. Peter says:

    All of these adornments/traditions of Christmas such as gift giving and the like started of with people having more disposable income and has now morphed into this huge commercialization of the Christmas season where as everyone has commented the significance of the occasion got lost. Retailers call it Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving because being in the red turns the ink to black. Just as in India weddings break the financial back of many a person especially if you have female progeny in the U.S its Christmas…lavish more than you can afford. I like your reminiscences Rana, because your memory clear as it is about matters 50+ years ago, at times jog mine, befuddled as they are…

  6. TJ says:

    Peter,et al – there is doubtless a connection between the trend towards gift giving and overall affluence. One of the emails I received on this subject suggests that this commercialization of Christmas is not unique to the US and seems to have spread far and wide. Here is an excerpt from the email:

    “It was in England, in the sixties, I became acutely aware of an aspect that for me significantly differentiated Christmas from Diwali. Goodwill and compassion for the others particularly the poor and the unfortunate. Besides the tips for the postman, milkman, garbage collectors there was something for the collectors for Charities. Carol singers would knock at the door. There were of course special family dinners, parties, small gifts , more as a token of remembrance perhaps inspired by the three wise men bearing gifts.

    After I got married, my family and friends although of different Faith continued with the tradition of celebration with minimal exchanges of presents, the children being the major beneficiaries. The major event was the Christmas tree lights at Trafalgar square. In time the shadow of commercialism began to cast over the true spirit of the festival. Really a sad affair. Christmas has now become another mega commercial event. Compassion and goodwill for the less fortunate a distant memory.

    Now we celebrate Christmas at our son and daughter in law’s home. Presents are for the grandchildren. We adults get something as a token. My daughter in law feels the Christmas is not the same as it was in her native Slovakia. Her parents feel things have changed there too. It has become too commercial.”

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