In Nagpur, where I passed my earliest years, we lived in a duplex apartment next to a conservative Brahmin family averse to all foreign rituals. Christmas had to be observed discreetly, without any fanfare, lights and music to boot. We ate a special meal to be sure, but cooked without onions or garlic whose odious odor could not waft beyond our walls. However, their two children, my friends, ambled over in the evening for a surreptitious bite of our Christmas cake.
When I started working for a European company, then led by British executives, the Christmas dinner became a rather formal affair, usually in the private sanctum of an elite restaurant, consisting of an English-style dinner with several Asian variations. I am not sure I retained a sound culinary judgment after three Whisky Sour, but I remember being quite partial to the smoked Hilsa, an outrageously odd but delicious choice.
When I married, my wife, though American, brought along her Scandinavian legacy, modified by a French education and Asian work experience. She cared less for a formal dinner than an informal Open House for Christmas when friends could come and go flexibly and enjoy finger food with drinks. She would personally cook for weeks and serve a huge assortment of hors d’oeuvres from different continents. The food was so varied and so unusual that she had to label each item with its name and ingredients. Adventurous guests could taste whatever they felt bold enough to try.
My work entailed not just travel but living overseas for extended periods. One Christmas I found myself in Oman and a friend graciously invited me for dinner. The air was cool but present, and he decided to barbecue. The meat was tender and had a special flavor. When asked about it, he urged me to recall the Christmas story of the three gifts the magi reportedly took for the newborn. I struggled to remember: gold, frankincense and – “myrrh,” he helped. I never knew what it was. Now I knew it was a prized additive that added a special flavor to meat and was valued in the Middle East.
Christmas was also a pleasant memory in the United Arab Emirates, though the leaders took pains to emphasize that they celebrated the event but separated it carefully from its religious association. They moved the local church from the main road to a nondescript street, and yet recognized that Christmas had become a major international event, even a marketing occasion, few trading countries could ignore. I loved the special Christmas meals the Emiratis served, including the spiced Shwarma and coffee with cardamom after a super-sugary plum cake.
I have been in Paris and London during the Christmas season, but Haiti, in its unusual way, offered its unique brand of the Noel season. There were lights of course, but with them were the unusual metal sculptures made out of beaten storage cans, gaunt elves and rotund deer. We partied to the wee hours and, when hungry, ate rice and beans with pumpkin soup and griyo made of fried pork. Through the night we drank superb Barbancour rum and danced to the throbbing beat of meringue and the creole konpa.
All of these seemed a fuzzy dream this year as I passed a somnolent Christmas in my home. Washington erupts as a party town at the end of the year as the denizens bury their ideological battles in ‘spirited’ celebration and companies exhaust their entertainment budgets in lavish dinner-and-dance parties. Not this year.
No party on Christmas Eve. No champagne and canapés. No bands, no dances. We put on masks not as a part of a fancy dress, but to avoid toxic germs. We didn’t hug or kiss; we kept social distance. In fact, most of us just stayed home. A few half-heartedly put on some lights, possibly to remind themselves that the holiday season had arrived. I stayed home, all by myself, sternly advised to quarantine myself from all festive creatures. I poured myself a friend’s gift of some excellent Prosecco, looked out of the window and saw the floating little flecks of snow. Christmas had indeed arrived, with no fanfare, with only a white finger gently writing on the grass an inscrutable message of goodwill and, hopefully, love.