It’s really not beginning to look like Christmas.
We’re in that familiar free fall from Thanksgiving to the end of the year, but here in Chennai, India—some eight thousand miles from our home in the U.S.—it’s a little hard to summon the holiday mood. Cecilia and I and the kids are still in short sleeves and sandals. In the balmy evenings, we stroll the city beach along the Bay of Bengal, past tiny hand-turned Ferris wheels, cotton candy and roasted groundnut stands, and young women in technicolor salwar kameez suits wading in the surf. Chennai is not draped with tinsel and tree lights, and there’s no unusual shopping frenzy in the air—just the everyday clatter of autorickshaws, bicycles, cars, buses, scooters, dogs, fruit sellers, and bullock carts. Our apartment has no fireplace for hanging stockings, and in lieu of a chimney, Santa will have to enter via the balcony.
We celebrated Christmas in India once before, when our daughter, Lila, was a gregarious, potbellied toddler and Cecilia was a graduate student doing research on childbirth. At the tail end of a year in Chennai (or Madras, as it was called then), we’d been surprised and thrilled to receive an invitation to a Christmas party with an actual appearance from Santa. But Lila, decked out for the occasion in her silk pavadai dress and silver ankle bracelets, was petrified of St. Nick, who wore a garish red mask above blue jeans and chappal sandals. Lila wouldn’t go within twenty feet of the poor guy, let alone sit in his lap. She peered into her little gift bag, carried over to her by a friendly neighbor, as if it might contain a snake.
Back then, we were easily consoled by the fact that we were flying home in a few days and would be celebrating a slightly delayed Christmas with family and all the traditional trimmings. This time, we are once again living in Chennai for Cecilia’s work—she’s an anthropology professor in the U.S.—but our personal circumstances are so different. We are now a foursome: Lila has grown into a lean and quietly observant eight-year-old, and her three-year-old brother, Jasper, is the family clown. As parents, Cecilia and I feel a new sort of responsibility for delivering a festive holiday experience to two kids who are old enough to know what an American Christmas looks, feels, and smells like.
Not that India is lacking in festivities. On the contrary, this place seems like one continuous celebration. Hindu processions regularly fill the streets with flower petals, firecrackers, drumming, and celebrants carrying garlanded statues on wooden palanquins. During the Pongal harvest festival, Jasper and Lila made cow masks and tasted Pongal rice prepared in special clay pots. On Holi, young revelers lived out a kid’s dream and doused each other with red dye. Even when there’s no religious or political holiday, extraordinary rituals go on every day. The kids’ favorite is visiting a temple elephant, who takes your offering of coins or food and blesses you with a soft touch of the trunk on your forehead.
So we have fun exploring all this local color but want to honor our family traditions too, which sometimes requires some creativity. On Easter, for instance, we had to figure out how to dye eggs without access to Paas. We considered turmeric and henna but finally settled on food coloring, and after a wide search we managed to locate a source for chocolate bunnies and eggs. No doubt the kids will always remember our early morning Easter egg hunt in a little garden populated by geckos and ringed with banana and neem trees.
Orchestrating a full Christmas celebration, though, is a tougher challenge. Chennai does have a substantial number of Christians, and some Anglo-Indian friends loan us a spindly fake tree that even Charlie Brown might have a hard time appreciating.
As Christmas approaches, we decide to try midnight mass at a big church down by the beach, hoping to find the holiday spirit in carols and hymns—my favorite part of Christmas. But the choir is painfully out of tune, listing and slurring over cheesy synthesizer tracks that blare out of the PA. We leave long before the service ends, vastly preferring the silent night to the sonic assault on “Silent Night.”
At dusk on Christmas Eve, the doorbell rings. “It’s Kalpaana!” Lila says, and she races Jasper to open the front door.
Kalpaana, a friend from our last stint in India, greets the kids with “Vannakum” and her palms pressed together, and she smiles at the sight of Lila in her new orange sari and Jasper in his princely kurta pyjamas. Kalpaana doted on Lila as a baby and in the last few weeks has been teaching her how to make kolams, the beautiful designs that south Indian Hindu women create on their doorsteps every morning to welcome the gods. She helped Lila practice drawing, on paper, the symmetrical patterns of loops and dots; she brought over bags of colored rice flour and demonstrated how to slide the thumb across the index finger to make a thin line of powder on the floor.
Now Kalpaana is fulfilling a promise to make us a special kolam for Christmas.
Sitting on our stone floor, Kalpaana begins mixing water, flour, and a bit of glue. “Normally we use the powder only, as I have shown Lila,” she explains. “Each day the kolam is swept away, and in the morning we make a new one. But for festival days, sometimes we make the kolam like this. Once it dries, this kolam will stay for some time. You can walk on it. Lila, come, come, see.”
Kalpaana sets to work just outside our front door, pausing periodically to demonstrate to Lila and Jasper what she’s doing. She starts by drawing, with her steady fingers, two birds that frame our doorway. Further out in the hall, she makes a small flower and then surrounds it with widening circles, loops, and a border of leaves. By now the whole kolam, all in white, is about three feet across.
“Mommy, Daddy, did you see the flower? Did you see?” says Jasper, pulling us by the hands closer to the door. The kolam seems perfectly complete, but Kalpaana picks up her red paste, adding contrasting lines and filling in the flower petals and leaves. We are speechless at this gift of art, this Christmas miracle that has appeared in our grubby hallway in Chennai.
Later that night, the kids collect all the presents they’ve made and wrapped in newspaper and ribbon, and place them under our tiny tree, which looks unexpectedly fetching propped on a chair in a brass bowl and decorated with brightly painted Kashmiri stars. We hang our stockings on the doors to the balcony, curl up in PJs to read the copy of The Night Before Christmas we brought from the U.S., and set out milk and green rastali bananas as late-night snacks for Santa and the reindeer. Finally the kids settle down into their beds under the whirr of the ceiling fans.
“Do you think Santa is really going to find us all the way here in India?” Cecilia asks as she says goodnight. Jasper nods sleepily.
Shortly after daybreak Cecilia and I are awoken as usual by the calls of the street vendors offering fresh varaiparum (bananas) and kirai (spinach). Soon we hear footsteps in the living room and Jasper scoots in, clutching Sammy, his faithful, world-traveling stuffed animal puppy.
“He came! He came!” Jasper calls out as he and Sammy pounce on our bed. “Santa came!” Lila is right behind him, with a big sister’s knowing grin.
This year’s gifts are mostly Indian handicrafts—spinning tops, sandalwood figures, little elephants draped in shiny cloth—but Santa did not forget to put the traditional walnut and quarter at the bottom of each stocking, and he also left his usual long letter recalling the family highlights of the year. After I finish reading Santa’s letter, Lila remembers something—she hops up, crosses the room, and opens the front door to reveal the kolam. Its graceful lines have dried and, as Kalpaana promised, do not scuff when Lila gently tests them with her toes.
“Wow,” Jasper whispers, as we stand in a semicircle at the doorway, awed and grateful. The kolam’s colors, like our moods, seem to have brightened overnight, a vivid reminder that the holiday spirit is whatever—and wherever—you make it.
I wrote this story years ago but never published it, and I thought I'd finally share it now. Everything in the story actually happened, although as a teacher of college courses on creative nonfiction writing, which always include a debate about the lines between fiction and nonfiction, I will confess to one conscious departure from the facts: I took bits and pieces from two separate family Christmases in India, a couple of years apart, and blended them into one scene. The story was just a little simpler to tell and follow that way. An insignificant change in a personal story like this? A forgivable sin? A violation of the compact between writer and reader? You decide.
One other note: years later, a kolam pattern inspired the inlay on my custom Manzer guitar, as recounted here.