My Christmas story is not a magical one. It spans years of love given and received. Mine originates, not from Father Christmas but from Uncle B. A bear of a man with a hunky mustache and a smile that lit up a room ! From the vantage point of a 2-3 year old girl this man was a mountain of warmth.
My cultural background does not include Christmas festivities. Yet I have been celebrating it since I was a toddler and it is as integrated in my life as the Hindu festivals. These are not just festivities I enjoy with my kids and friends. It is me carrying on traditions born from cherished memories.
In Kuwait, you live in apartments. Life is pretty much boxed up. That means you are right next to your neighbors and are inevitably aware of the families living around you.
But finding the perfect neighbors as we all know is a boon! In the 80s, our immediate neighbors in Kuwait were Christians originating from Goa, India. A wonderful family : Uncle B, Aunty M and their two kids Big J and Little J. Everyone who knows me for more than a year, hears about them and definitely around Christmas. It also often comes up when they wonder how I am a hard core non vegetarian while my family on both my parents’ sides are pure vegetarian.
Only someone as lucky as me could have been loved as much as I was in that home. Uncle B gave the best hugs. Aunty M always welcomed me with a smile. He worked at night and stayed home all day. He cooked amazing meals for his family before going off to work in the evening. I was constantly in and out of their house. Meals, play time, any time I could get away with it, I would be over there playing with my little friends.
Whenever I was over and Uncle B was cooking, he sat me up on the kitchen counter and fed me with his own hands talking up a storm. He teased me, quizzed me, laughed at my silliness, his eyes twinkling with abandon. I don’t remember what we discussed but I still can feel those moments full of heart. The yummy chicken, sausages, cutlets he made were relished by me wholeheartedly. My parents not too happy about it initially, encouraged me to choose my foods as they could see I enjoyed it so much.
Aunty M had the most unique way of calling out my name Atiti. Their kids Big J and Little J were my best and maybe only real friends for the first 10 years of my life. My mom baby-sat Little J when Aunty M worked and tutored Big J in the subject of Hindi . I bossed both of them all the time, considering them siblings. Even at that little age I knew they would always follow my naughty demands. Around them I felt like an invincible princess whose every word was gold!
Christmas time was celebrated in a big way in their home. Everyone who came knew they would find me there. I was a permanent fixture. Their whole circle, distant family and work friends included became people who I considered part of my circle. Each person who came there shared the same jokes each time they met me at any event.
The tree would be decked up. Everyone dressed in their best. Every single year everything would be placed and decorated exactly like the last year and it was perfect! Festive music, the nativity scene under the stereo system and scrumptious food. Glitter galore! For many years, for lack of vegetarian options in their menu Uncle and Aunty fed my mom and dad sausage rice with the sausages removed. Eventually my dad caught on but sweetly laughed it off!
The eight of us were a unique family. When mom fell down the stairs 7 months pregnant fracturing her foot, it was Aunty M who carried her to the hospital. When Aunty M needed help with anything she would come calling my mom, “Achana!” (she still pronounces our names the same way) with an authoritative voice knowing my mom would always be home. We celebrated Rakhi and Diwali with them, lighting sparklers together. I don’t think either of our doors were often locked.
The Gulf war happened and my family had to leave the country. We moved back to Kuwait two years later. Our homes were far away from our “neighbors” now but our hearts were still close. We met less often, spoke less often. But whenever we met, Aunty M and Uncle B still pampered me and my little brother just as much. And Christmases always warranted a visit to their welcoming home.
I was in college in India when I got the news that Uncle B was sick. Next time we met him, he was the thinnest I think a grown man could possibly be! A year later, I was riding the bus somewhere in India when my mom called to tell me he had passed away succumbing to his illness. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. The deep regret I felt haunts me to this day of not being able to say good bye. I do not know what I would have said to him but when I did finally calm down that day on the bus, I said a prayer and told him I will always miss him.
Through college and the working years in Kuwait this holiday season was always celebrated with great gusto with friends who shared their families and festive fun with me! Two years after moving to USA, my shift to Richmond brought into my life the most amazing friends who loved rejoicing every occasion. Christmas again became a big part of my life.
Once I had kids, I wish my children too are lucky enough to know such fondness. I wanted them to be able to feel the magic of Christmas. The joy of the Christmas tree, the gaiety in the carols, the beauty in the story of the day Jesus Christ was born. The cozy warmth of the lights that twinkle in the dark cold nights giving hope and happiness! It was big day when we finally brought home our very own Christmas tree and decorated it amidst great excitement starting a tradition that I know will last a life time!
Another wish that grows with me is a desire to be that kind of person in every child and friend’s life. Hoping to be such an epitome of warmth that they can feel it. Someone who they would cherish when time flew by. To be Adi Aunty to all the children around me.
Christmas in my home is surely rooted in the love for friends who left within me a part of them. But when Christmas comes around and the lights are lit and everything starts getting that punch of red my first smile is always at the memory of Uncle B, may he rest in peace. And the people who have always loved me as their own.