OPN CHRISTMAS1-1577183527191
A teacher dressed as Santa Claus distributes candies among the children as they celebrate Christmas at their school, in India Image Credit: PTI

The vents of the green shuttered windows let the winter sunshine creep in and gently caress our faces as we woke up to the pealing of the bells in St. James’ Church, next door. It was the day we were going to stage our Christmas play, that beckoned the beginning of the winter vacation at our boarding school. The season of Yuletide since then has always been wrapping me within its cosy and warm fold like a soft, many-hued patchwork quilt.

That year, I played ‘Mother Mary’, for the fourth consecutive time. The exciting part was that Miss Susan, the home science teacher, agreed to let her baby (who was a few months old) play little Jesus. We thought that he would sleep through the play as we made a comfortable bed for him in the manger; one of the wise men played by a very shrill girl woke him up and he cried and cried till Miss Susan (who was dressed as Santa Claus) had to run in and take him away. I was left with an empty cradle as the three wise men sang “We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts, we traverse afar …”

Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!

- Hamilton Wright Mabie, American essayist

That evening, something amazing happened that will remain ensconced in my heart. A few of us were selected to go to Shishu Bhavan of The Missionaries of Charity (Kolkata), just across the road, to present the children in the orphanage with gifts that we had collected for them. There I saw her, picking up a baby who was wailing; a petite lady, in her austere blue bordered sari. She looked divine and yes, there was something special about her. She was Mother Teresa! That benign smile on a face wrinkled over years of selfless service towards mankind reinstated the respect I felt for her. Ever since, Christmas denoted a secular spirit of generosity and giving; and more so because in the city where I grew up, Kolkata, we revelled at the famous Park Street that seemed to miraculously develop a joyous soul of its own in December.

Recently a piece of news that appeared as ‘The Christmas Lesson’ touched my heart to no end! A teacher in a school, in the suburbs of West Bengal in India, had just explained to Grade IV that Christmas was the birthday of Jesus Christ when a boy’s query shocked him. The student asked, “What’s a birthday?” There was pin-drop silence in the class as each child awaited the reply.

The teachers of that particular primary school were appalled to learn that out of the 110 pupils of the school, hardly any of them had ever had a birthday celebrated or even tasted a birthday cake. Therefore, the headmaster and the teachers decided to make sure that each pupil had a chance to celebrate their birthdays. So, since January 2019, the school has been organising month-end “birthday parties” for all the students born that month, with all 110 children invited along with the parents of the birthday boys and girls. Most of the parents are farm labourers. They could never afford to celebrate birthdays.

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According to the headmaster of the school, it’s a basic right for children to know, and to be acknowledged on their birthdays. So, the teachers prepared a list of all the students’ birthdays from the school records and informed their families, travelling door-to-door in their pocket of the rural district. The cost is borne by the teachers of the school. Well, I couldn’t agree more with Hamilton Wright Mabie, when he said, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!”

The blue hills of Nagaland (Kohima), situated in northeast India, is where I spent umpteen number of years since I was born. During Christmas, the place became more beautiful and as colourful as a brightly painted picture. Poinsettia blossoms that heralded the season seemed to animate the spirit of the region. Each house would be lit up with one big star, no matter what your religion was. Here we believed only in the religion of love. The nurses from the hospital, where my father worked, would regale us with carols as my mother baked plum cakes and brownies for them. Even the poorest of the poor patients would come with thoughtful gifts for my father.

Last but not the least, here are some suggestions by Oren Arnold for the ideal X-mas gifts: ‘To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.’

— Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @VpNavanita