My parents, myself, my sister Tara and dog Binky
My parents Raj and Priscilla David
- Christmas tribute to my parents Priscilla Senaratne and Raj David
By Anusha David
It is indeed that most magical time of the year! I love Christmas, I just love Christmas. Even as I type these words I can feel a tingle going down my spine and I’m smiling to myself, as I look forward to what is to me the time of year that is sheer magic and joy (though alas most people are not that fortunate).
Just last night as I lay in bed looking out at the night sky and the Dragon Fruit tree that grows outside our bedroom window, the thought popped into my head ‘Would Santa Claus like to eat Dragon Fruit’? Now you may well think, that this is a ludicrous thought for someone who will be 59 in three months’ time, but I personally feel fortunate and privileged that I still believe in Santa Claus and flying reindeer, elves and gnomes, fairies and goblins, witches and wizards and all the magical elements that made up my childhood – thanks to my amazing, wonderful parents, who ensured that I had the most perfect childhood ever. As for Christmas, oh my goodness, even now I recall as though it was just yesterday the preparations that went into making Christmas in our home a magical experience and one which is still talked about by my cousins even today.
The years have gone by, my wonderful, amazing parents are no more, but the magic they created lives on in the hearts and minds of my sister Tara and myself and my cousins as well. I still believe in fairies and Santa Claus and have not given up hope that one day soon I will spy them in my garden and racing through the night sky
Growing up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s we really didn’t have a lot. Even a loaf of bread was hard to come by and a tin of condensed milk was a luxury. Chocolates were unheard of and my mother had perfected the art of sewing a little girl’s dress and making it look pretty with just a square of fabric, which was literally all you could buy. Toys were hard to come by but that didn’t matter in my case as all I wanted were my pets and we had an abundance of them. A moth eaten Teddy, Lyka my woolly dog whose tail was forever on the verge of falling off and Bashana my rag doll who was more rag than doll, accompanied me wherever I went and of course the trail of dogs and cats and monkeys, hence the lack of toys didn’t really matter.
By the end of August, my mother would have this grim look on her face and my father would say, “Your mother is starting to plan Christmas and sure enough she was”. In those days everything was made at home, nothing was bought. At least in our home that was the case. Ham, corned beef, corned mutton, corned tongue (all of which I’m ashamed to say I enjoyed at that time), stuffed dates and olives, Xmas biscuits, the Dutch and Portuguese sweets like Botterletter, Bola Fiado, Pofferjee, Fugeti, Candied Cadjunuts, Marzipan, Potato Toffee, Coconut Rock, Cadju Toffee, Marshmallows, Butterscotch sweets, Boiled Sweets in a myriad different colours, Xmas cake and pudding, Love cake, Breudher – my mother’s recipe is for 1 kg flour you had to put 2 kg butter, 2 kg sugar and 50 egg yolks! I make this every year and everyone relishes it. Xmas cake was mixed not in a bowl but in a baby bath tub as mummy would make cake for friends and family. Similarly so Love Cake, and all the other goodies. She was all her life a career woman (she worked till she was past 70), so how she had the time and energy to do what she did I really don’t know. Her nutty fruity stuffing for the chicken and turkey is what I make every year and to date I haven’t tasted anything like it. Fruit slices, Baked Alsaka, Snowman pudding (again something I have never had outside our home); mummy would even make the Snowman’s hat and scarf and pipe by hand, ably assisted by my dad who remained a child at heart until his death. Asparagus was Murunga scraped and mixed with cheese. Cheese was made at home, so was ice cream, sorbets and popsicles. Jelly was set in orange skins and oh what a colourful sight they were. By September after mummy had made her famous lists, we would set off to Latheefias to buy all the cake and pudding ingredients. Every year my dad would say “Pris can’t we just get them from Premasiris?” to which my mother would reply “certainly not, they don’t taste the same”! Mummy was a tough cookie and always had her own way. So off we would go, daddy and myself. My sister Tara would fastidiously shudder at the thought and would never accompany us. Pettah and especially Gas Work Street back in the ‘60s and ‘70s was simply a mess! Mummy would hitch her sari up so as not to tread on the muck all over. There was no proper drainage at that time and garbage, litter and God knows what else was just out on the road. No proper pavements either. We would arrive at Latheefias, my dad with a resigned look on his face, me all excited and hopping around, sampling everything the store keeper gave me. My mum was treated with deference and awe. We were served tea and her order duly taken. “Mrs David please come back in two hours and everything will be ready” she would be told. “Now no mistakes please, make sure everything is there” my mother would say (as though anyone would dare make a mistake with mummy), and off we would go about our other business and return to collect the ingredients, which were all beautifully packed and checked. When it came to mixing the cake, everyone had to stir and make a wish, including the servants. Once the fruit was mixed it would be kept covered until time came for it to be baked. Similarly the Love Cake and Xmas pudding.
On tucking me into bed my mother would present me with that most precious and unusual of gifts. A Marzipan Christmas tree which was in its own little Marzipan pot and decorated with multi coloured Marzipan baubles, all handmade by her. How she had the time to do this I don’t know. The love and care that went into that marvellous work of art is unimaginable
Next it was time for Christmas cards. Now again during the time I was a child this too was a luxury. UNICEF cards or any other Xmas card was hard to come by so what did we do? We made them of course. What a wonderful time we had. Coloured crayons, pencils, chocolate paper, glazed paper, crepe paper, all went into our Xmas cards which were indeed a sight to behold. Daddy was very artistic and would make the most gorgeous Xmas cards.
One year my best friend Yamuna Dissanayake’s dad went overseas on a business trip and what did he bring back but a set of 24 coloured felt pens – Riches indeed. Yamuna promptly brought them home and told my dad “Uncle Raj let’s make Xmas cards.” At this point I have to mention the fact that my dad was a magnet as far as children, animals and beggars were concerned. They all just flocked about him, so much so that my mum never let him have any money except one rupee for his cigarettes. “If your father has any money on him it will be given to the first person who spins him a hard luck story and more so at Christmas time,” she would say.
I still experience the thrill of making those Christmas cards, especially once the felt pens came along. My sister Tara took one look at my attempts and told my father “Surely you are not going to let her send those off”, to which my father replied “Of course, they are beautiful”. Now to this day I clearly remember those Christmas cards and they were downright hideous. I could never draw or paint and my highest mark for art was 13, nevertheless my father found them beautiful and they were mailed out to all our friends here and abroad.
Next it was time for Christmas shopping. Oh the excitement and wondering what to wear for this great outing as it always included lunch at the Harbour Room and tea at Pagodas. Mummy had somehow got me a pair of lace pantyhose and of course I had to wear them for this all important occasion. In those days I never walked, I either ran or skipped and jumped up and down when excited. In fact I still jump up and down when excited! After a hectic day’s shopping, lunch at the Harbour Room where staple fare was Lobster Thermidor (I still recall its amazing taste) and tea at Pagoda, where I had my fill of delicious curry puffs and cheese cake and other delicacies, we would go home, the car overflowing with our purchases.
Then came that long awaited day – Christmas Eve. I still experience the excitement of that wonderful day and all the preparations we made. I had to have a new nightdress or pyjamas and even new hair ribbons, as Santa could not see me in last year’s nightdress. No way. Even Bashana was cleaned up for the occasion and had mummy’s lipstick smeared on her for good measure. Teddy and Lyka had new neck ribbons and so did the dogs and cats. A feast was set out for Santa as he would be hungry travelling the world distributing presents. Xmas and Love cake, sweets, biscuits, little sausage rolls (again made by mummy) and of course Milk Wine and Ginger Beer were all laid out for him.
Now to this day I clearly remember those Christmas cards and they were downright hideous. I could never draw or paint and my highest mark for art was 13, nevertheless my father found them beautiful and they were mailed out to all our friends here and abroad
On Christmas Eve the ritual was attending the Methodist Church carol service and then dinner at the home of my parents’ best friend, Aunty Wivi and Uncle Nis. Aunty Wivi being Chinese, dinner was always exotic and unusual and one we all looked forward to. After eating until bursting point, playing games and singing Christmas carols, we would set off home to get ready for that all important visitor Santa Claus!
On tucking me into bed my mother would present me with that most precious and unusual of gifts. A Marzipan Christmas tree which was in its own little Marzipan pot and decorated with multi coloured Marzipan baubles, all handmade by her. Even while writing this my eyes are filled with tears. How she had the time to do this I don’t know. The love and care that went into that marvellous work of art is unimaginable. All through Christmas this tree would be by my bedside table along with my Noddy lamp, and Bashana, Teddy, Lyka and of course the dogs and cats who made it to my bedroom, along with myself would partake of it. I would try hard to keep awake to meet Santa but of course that never happened.
Next morning I would bounce out of bed; Joy to the World and Hark the Herald Angels sing would be blaring out. After all the hugs and kisses and general pandemonium with dogs and cats and budgies joining in the excitement, the first thing was to check if Santa has eaten the goodies laid out for him and of course he had. Next was a trip to the kitchen to wish the home staff and give them their presents. Next I rush back and go into the garden to check Santa’s toadstools. Oh what wonderful toadstools they were; in a myriad colours, with stars and stripes and polka dots. Dazzling to say the least.
Years later, actually just before my mum died around 2005 or so, it had rained the previous night and there were some white toadstools that had sprung up. I asked to my mum why it was that we no longer saw toadstools the likes of which grew in our garden when I was a child. Was it pollution? My mother looked at me strangely and said “You mean to say you never knew? Your father would go out in the morning and paint them for you”! I was amazed, speechless and overcome with love for my wonderful father who did everything he could to ensure that magic was part and parcel of his daughter’s daily life.
Breakfast around the table was a family affair (actually in those days every meal was a family affair). Fried bread, bacon and eggs, sausages, fried tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, kiribath, plantains, Xmas cake and pudding, Love cake, etc., etc. were all laid out on the breakfast table. Then off we go to church and lustily sing all the Christmas carols, kiss everyone and wish them after service and the trot back home for a non-traditional Indian lunch a la daddy of biryani, made by him! While my father slept off all the food, I would be going through all my presents, my sister would be talking to her boyfriends and my energetic mother who was never ever tired – she didn’t know the meaning of the word, would be putting the final touches to the gargantuan Christmas dinner. Come 7 p.m. and we would all be dressed up and ready to welcome the family. All my mother’s sisters, brother and my cousins would troop in and oh what a wonderful time we had. Daddy and Uncle Paul would dress up in fancy dress and keep everyone amused with their antics. We would all perform skits, we children would sing for the adults, pull the bonbons (there was no TV, or note pads or CDs or any gadgetry that is so much a part of a child’s life today), and of course partake of all the delicacies my mum had prepared. The dining table and side boards literally groaned with food. My dad would always have a glass of wine with the home staff who would join in all the festivities, including lighting of fireworks. Once the presents were opened and the oohs and ahs were made, we all had to articulate what we wanted to do in the New Year – grownups included! My father would be told by one and all to diet and cut out sweets, my mother would be told to work less, I would be told to eat more (my mum would dress me up daily with three can cans no less under my dress in order that I would look plump) and so it would go on amidst much fun and laughter. I would unfailingly ask if I could wear make up and pluck my eyebrows only to be told a very firm NO (even at age 8 I loved make up and pretty dresses even though in those days they were hard to come by). Soon after midnight everyone would leave replete with good food and laden with gifts. My mum and the staff would put away the leftover food, leaving the cleaning up for the next day. I would be in bed surrounded by my presents, eating my Marzipan tree and wondering, just wondering would Santa Claus by any chance make another visit? I believed in Santa till I was almost 15, and my parents encouraged it, till one day I opened my mum’s wardrobe and discovered all the contents of my letter to Santa in there. The penny dropped and oh how I wept and wept and wept. My childhood dreams shattered. However I bounced back and demanded that I be given Santa Claus nonetheless. And my parents complied.
The years have gone by, my wonderful, amazing parents are no more, but the magic they created lives on in the hearts and minds of my sister Tara and myself and my cousins as well. I still believe in fairies and Santa Claus and have not given up hope that one day soon I will spy them in my garden and racing through the night sky. Christmas carols blare out from 1 October right through January. I try and produce as many of my mother’s Christmas goodies as possible. When I feel tired and tell myself I am a working woman and all this is too much for me, a little voice inside my head says ‘your mother was a working woman too and sewed and cooked for her children and her extended family and neighbours’. I still jump up and down when excited and skip through the house and while shopping. I believe in magic and miracles and trying to help as many people and animals as I possibly can. In my beloved father’s words ‘I will not pass this way again’. As a tiny tot I was puzzled and told him but Daddy you pass this way all the time. He explained what this actually meant and admonished me never to pass by anyone who needed help!
Christmas at home was all about love and caring and sharing and magic and wonder. So much so that after all these years, I still believe in magic. Happy Christmas everyone and thank you to my parents for their amazing legacy. You will always live on in my heart and in my mind.