Christmas brings back a treasure trove of memories — of carolling, going to church for worship, spending time with family at a traditional lunch, meeting friends or visiting an old-age home in Kolkata [in the Indian state of West Bengal]. But some of the fondest memories are of helping my mother bake cakes for the festive season.
The planning would start early. A visit to the market to buy raisins, dried fruits, butter, eggs and flour would be followed by a trip to the local baker to book a suitable date. Due to the sheer volume of cakes needed, it was not possible to bake them at home. So the help of a baker was sought to use his large oven, usually used for making bread. During the Christmas season, the baker is in demand. If dates were not booked in advance, there was the possibility that cakes would not be ready in time for the big day.
At home all hands were needed to chop the dried fruits evenly and to store them safely. My sister and I loved doing this as we got to eat the raisins and nuts while helping out. Sometimes neighbours got together to make the task of cutting and chopping easier.
Once all the ingredients were weighed and packed, we would carry the bags through the market to the bakery. A 20-minute walk later we would find ourselves in the company of a few other family friends who too had booked the same oven.
All the mixing of the ingredients would be done at the bakers. The dough would be poured into moulds of one and two pounds and they would then be placed inside the oven. But not before a very important task. Small pieces of paper with our names would be placed on top of every cake for easy identification. No mother would want to see her hard work end up in another home.
The time at the bakers was also a time to socialise and gather general information. Mothers would invariably discuss the results of their children at the end of the academic year. So when one person would say that her son won the general proficiency award or another got 100 per cent in maths, we children knew it was time to pull our mothers back home. The baking would take its own time.
In the evening I would accompany my father once again to the baker, sort out all the cakes with our names on them, arrange them neatly in bags and begin the long walk home.
Back home the 30-odd cakes would be neatly stacked on the table or on every conceivable piece of flat surface. With the aroma of freshly baked cakes wafting through the house, we were warned not to get too close. The cakes would be cut only a day later when they had cooled well, lest they crumble. To stop the drooling, we were given a piece or two, but that was it for the next 24 hours. Staring expectantly at the cakes was the most we could do.
When the cakes had cooled, some of them would be cut and stored in large containers. They would be offered to friends and family who visited us during the Christmas season. They would also be given out to my parents’ colleagues in the workplace. The uncut ones were distributed to families in the neighbourhood and to close friends.
I once asked my mother why she worked so hard to make dozens of cakes only to give them away. Her answer: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ I learnt early that the joy of Christmas was in sharing with others, with those who did not have and with those whose faces would light up when they found that someone cared for them. Christmas takes on a completely new meaning when it is celebrated with this in mind.