When I look back on my growing up years, the earliest memories of Christmas brings back a flashback of crisp winter nights and bright afternoons in a sun-soaked beautiful picturesque hill town named Kohima located in The North-East. (For those who may not know, Kohima – the capital of Nagaland today, otherwise a quiet little hill town tucked in somewhere in the Aradhura mountain ranges, is historically famous for once being a fierce battleground between the Japanese Army and the British Army during the Second World War. The Nagas had sided with the British and helped them win the battle, now known famously as the ‘Battle of Kohima’.)
The schools would normally close for a long two-month vacation around early December after the final exams were over and report cards handed out in the very first week itself. In the midst of all this, the joys of the Yuletide spirit would be ushered in, by the resounding carols from the neighbouring households, echoing across the hills. Nagas, as all the other tribes from the north-eastern states of India, are extremely talented musically and this used to be evident in their everyday singing which would form an essential part of their lives.
In the university campus called Jotsoma, located high above the Kohima town, where we used to live, along with fifty other families, life was very quiet and a far cry from the buzzing city that Kohima is today.
Those days, everyone was part of a close- knit community in the campus, almost like an extended family. While we were all culturally very different, it was this spirit of kinship that saw us celebrate our festivals together. While the Nagas are primarily Christians, in our campus, we all felt we were all one large community, so naturally, along with Eid, Durga Puja and Diwali, we looked forward to celebrating Christmas too alongside each other.
During the most severe winters, we’d set off to see our extended families either in Delhi, Jaipur or Kolkata, to escape from the bitter sub-zero temperatures! But, those cold winters when we stayed back to brave the odds through December and January, that’s when we got to see first hand, what a beautiful build-up to Christmas, it used to be then!
There was always an element of rejoicing and merriment as every household got decorated with a customary red star that adorned our entrances. Now looking back, I think Kohima was the prettiest little town in our part of the country, as anybody who has lived there will vouch for, especially if one had been lucky enough to see the clear night sky in Kohima, studded with twinkling silver and red lights, all decked up for the Big Day! Science College campus residents had an advantage: they believed that they had the best views of Kohima town as they were located right up the hill that overlooked the town. They were probably not wrong!
During the days preceding Christmas, our town would begin to don a festive look as the markets would be lit up with fairy lights, shops would be done up with streamers and all across, carols would play on, until the Big Day finally dawned.
Christmas would bring together people from different communities and various walks of life all in one place, as a way of celebrating life itself!
The day would always begin with a service at our campus church, which we would all attend, followed by the choir’s beautiful renditions and readings from some of the members about the true spirit of Christmas and how we should be thankful for this life and how we ought to give and share with all those who were less fortunate, in the true spirit of giving. This was usually followed by a simple feast and the warmth of the winter afternoon would be enhanced by the laid-back, relaxed conversation amongst the group.
There was something simple and sweet about those informal gatherings that made us feel we were all part of one community despite our cultural differences! The day would usually end a little before sunset, about 4 in the evening with everyone feeling thankful to have been a part of this wonderful celebration.
I wonder where all those moments disappeared…
Decades later, today, all that remains etched are memories, to recollect and fondly look back…to relive the experience once more and smile to oneself, as I do now! Much has changed since those childhood years and yet, when I see my son putting up one of those bright red stars to light up the balcony, I realise that some things never will!