We kept playing the Santa Claus game, unwilling to bow to the fact that our innocent, naïve childhood were drawing to a close — By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
The 8 to 12 year-old kids at the QB municipality library began this December by giving free rein to their creativity. And lo, many of them had drawn their Christmas tree in the same way we drew it some six decades ago – two dimensional, greenish, slightly tilted to one side, conical firs with serrated sides – and below that tree were colourful gift boxes. We stood and appreciated, as wonderful memories of our own childhood flooded in.
In that last month of the year, what had marked our feelings most was that vacation was being away from school, from teachers and books. Closely knitted with that dream was nature’s benevolence: the blooming of the flamboyant trees, the abundance of mangoes, litchis, pineapples and watermelons.
But still, those wonderful days of our childhood might not have been that memorable if we were not well surrounded by members of our joint family. Besides our parents, our cousins, uncles, aunties and grandmother were there to cushion those budding years of our life. They provided comfort and security, gave constancy to our feelings, and primed our tender brains for the grandest celebration of all — welcoming Xmas. Sharing jollity was a sure mood elevator.
For weeks the elders would be after us to start behaving and to refrain from mischief; we children, like all youngsters of all species, liked to play and tease each other, specially the younger ones, to structure our daily activities. We would be hearing ad nauseam that father Xmas was spying on our behaviour, and would count when the time came. So the girls would start helping the women with the house chores. We boys would reluctantly take up the broom to clean the compound or trim the bamboo hedge; sometimes we would decide to obey mum’s orders to paint the odd pieces of old chairs, tables or cupboards, or we would even become house painters as our enthusiasm grew. This meant mixing quick lime with all sorts of colours to redo the walls of the house, all the while praying that there would be wonderful gifts for us awaiting. Slowly and surely our elders cajoled us into believing that there could not be free lunch – no reward for disobedience or laziness. When was that psychological trick first played on us we cannot remember? Somehow we children gradually learned to react positively to Santa Claus’ visit, allowing ourselves to be drawn into a whirlpool of excitement as 25th December drew near. Besides, every uncle and aunty passing by would drop in at our house and ask the inevitable question: “Qui tone fine dimande pou Noel?” All this make-believe was reinforced by the elders prompting us to place our orders with Father Xmas, pushing our expectations higher still. Our dreams got virtual, a virtual world that gradually assumed a real possibility.
Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the children, my dad or uncle Marday would, in the late 1950s, play the game and on the eve of Xmas he would bring in his ‘camionette’ a fairly big branch of a Xmas tree, bought in Rose-Hill. We would readily find an old tin container, place the sacred tree in it and wedge in some stones to hold it vertical. Asking for decorations would have been to push our luck a bit too far – though we managed to hide a container behind some ‘muslin’ coloured paper; that tree crystallized all our hopes and wonder.
As we grew up new ideas cropped up. We threw in some flashy coloured, serpentine decorations; years later when the financial situation of the family had improved, tiny coloured bulbs and some paper stars were included. That’s how the elder sister would tease some white cotton pieces and have them strewn on that tree. And on Xmas eve, when the house floor had been ‘evershined’ with red wax, when the atmosphere at home was electrified with giggles, mirth and good humour – hinting to us how our mind and psychology had been primed to the maximum, we children were aflutter with expectations. The dinner, among sisters and cousins, would taste better for some – or was of little interest to others. Soon all of us kids, prompted by the elders, would fish out our odd pair of shoes or ‘Tanga’ footwear, “Tip Top” sports shoes or even slippers, and cleaned them before laying them below the Xmas tree.
However much we children tried to keep our eyes open to catch a glimpse of mysterious Father Xmas, we always faltered at the last hour; some might wake up at 5 am to shake the others out of their sleep and spread the good news to the others still exhausted from the eve’s excitement. We would rush with half opened eyes to the Xmas tree under the verandah of our colonial house and unwrap our gifts to find whether our wishes had materialized.
In the early years we found the coloured gifts made in Hong Kong, a ball or the girls’ ‘joujou menage’; gone were the days when we had to fabricate a ball with dad’s old socks stuffed with bits and pieces of cloth. As the years went by, we saw how better and colourful plastic took over. The hard, rigid, Parkinson-like dolls of the girls got replaced by the soft, silky beautiful rosy synthetic plastics to finally tend towards the Barbie iconic doll; they could even blink or mutter mummy or daddy.
We boys got our American metallic cars, which evolved into bigger more stylish plastic models to finally become automatic, driven by batteries and, later still, equipped with remote control. Our wooden guns or pistols changed into more solid looking plastic imitations of the real stuff, with a cork bullet at the tip of the barrel; or we discovered the water pistols for the first time. The staccato sound of the stun gun could be heard all over the place as the boys chased each other, while the smaller kids whizzed by in their three-wheel cycle. The more sophisticated the Christmas tree got decorated the more modern the gifts became.
During the whole day we would be casting suspicious glances at our friends’ toys, wondering whether they had been luckier than us; we would be comparing and boasting about our own luck. Some of us would go around with glum faces, because Santa Claus had not been fair. Our elders also got into the mood of the day and endured our tears, tantrums or stubbornness. I was sure that my Uncle Vavel, meeting me in the Chinese shop while sipping his Malta drink, had hinted that Father Xmas would give me a battery-driven lion that would spit bubbles of soap through its mouth. And on 25th morning it was my sister who inherited that toy. Six decades later I am still wondering how did Santa Claus confuse the sexes.
And what to say of that year when a cyclone gave rendez-vous to Father Xmas in Mauritius? We stood and watched with despair from our kitchen as the rain and wind battered our Christmas tree boarded and neglected outside in a corner of our chicken pen. Greater was the sadness as we saw our ‘longane’ tree losing its precious fruits to the wind; no one could explain our bad luck. But our elders parried to that despondency by cooking “carri coq and farata” for lunch — in that humid, rainy, windy weather.
Yet six decades later we could not forget that exceptional, yet meaningful gift below our Xmas tree; near our shoes and toys were always two litchis! Perhaps they symbolized all the simple, wonderful feelings of people who have loved and cherished their children. I have always suspected my paternal grandmother to be the initiator of that tradition after returning from her work at the market place. We may remember all those artificial gifts given us for so many Xmases, but those two litchis had come to mean the real love of our elders.
We did not feel a pang of regret as the 25th drew to a close; we children were never defeated, for in our heart of hearts we knew that the fun was not yet over. School and books were still foreign to our mind, for New Year, that wonderful other day, was just one week away. A lot of fun awaited us still.
As we grew older, and always surrounded by younger brothers, sisters and cousins, we kept playing the Santa Claus game – just as our parents, aunties, uncles and grandmother had previously done for us, unwilling to bow to the fact that our innocent, naïve childhood were drawing to a close.
* Published in print edition on 22 December 2017