Christmas came much earlier than December 25 when I was growing up. At least it did in our small town. My mother would start her preparations for the ‘plum cake’ by early November. The shopping expedition would be planned a few days in advance and my father would drive us to the bigger shops in the centre of town so that she could choose the candied fruit peels, ginger preserves, raisins, dates and nuts that were required. S.P & Sons, with its gleaming counters and intoxicating myriad scents of spices, freshly baked bread, pastries and puffs, displayed the Christmas condiments in glass bottles with shiny tops, arranged neatly down an unusually high counter. I wasn’t tall enough to reach up to open the bottles, but the salespeople were kind and obliging as only salespeople in a small town can be – everyone knew us and we knew them. By the time my mother had finished her shopping, not only for the ingredients for the cake but also for parchment paper to line the cake tins, icing sugar, food colouring, etc, I would have sampled something from every bottle and would also be given a red and white candy striped lollipop to savour on the way home.
The next day my mother would carefully clean and chop the fruits and put them (excluding the nuts) into a huge glass bottle into which my father would measure out the required quantities of dark rum and brandy so that the fruits could soak in them for a few weeks, becoming rich and plump and fragrant with the liquor, until they could take in no more. And it wasn’t just the cake of course, even though that was obviously the centrepiece. My mother would spend weeks making varieties of cupcakes, jam tarts, mincemeat patties and other goodies. My enduring memories of that month leading up to Christmas are of her bustling around the house, spectacles constantly flecked with bits of something edible, and always emanating a scent that I will always associate with her – an odd, delicious mixture of vanilla essence and mincemeat.
My father and I, when we were not tasting and sampling, had to get the Christmas tree and decorate it. No artificial trees in those days, nothing made in China. The open field behind the whitewashed Christ Church, one of the oldest churches in our town, would be converted into a garden of fir and pine trees in varying sizes, probably brought down from the hill stations. We would all go there to select our particular tree, and then tie it onto the top of the car in a specially fitted “carrier” and take it home, after stopping at Spencer’s, the only department store in town, to buy some new decorations.
One particular year, there was something at Spencer’s that I had never seen before. It was a Christmas stocking. Nothing like the luxurious red satin and white fur ones that I’ve seen and acquired since. This was a simple piece of cardboard shaped like a large stocking, covered over with white net and finished with a red border. My father explained that I could hang it at the foot of my bed on Christmas eve and the next morning it would be full of at least some of the things I most wanted – but I had to first make a list and address it to Santa Claus, who would decide if I deserved the gifts. I painstakingly wrote out the letter and handed it to my father, completely sure that he would know where to send it. I can never forget waking up on Christmas morning and seeing the stocking, empty and flat the previous night, stuffed to the brim with the things I had asked for, unassailable proof that I had been a good girl – a couple of new books, a pencil box with a magnetic clasp, love-in-tokyos for my hair – all the simple pleasures of childhood.
I can also never forget what happened a few years later, when following the same ritual, something woke me up around midnight and I saw my father sitting at the foot of my bed, patiently stuffing my Christmas stocking by torchlight. To me, that moment was and still remains the magic that is Christmas.
Elizabeth Eapen is an editor and writer