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The year of a humble Christmas

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(December 22, 2013, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) In 1965, Jaffna suffered one of the worst floods and food was scarce. I recall my mother saying Dudley Senanayake flew to Jaffna and inspected the town from a helicopter and provided food relief.

But what I most remember and the Christmas I cannot forget is we did not bake the Christmas cake and instead had kiribath (milk-rice) and some humble palaharam (local sweetmeat).

None of us children had any new clothes that Christmas which was de rigeur; the reason being my father’s remittance from Italy where he went for higher studies in Fine Arts failed to arrive on time. I stubbornly refused to attend the midnight mass since I had this morbid fear others would notice I did not wear a new dress.

Nevertheless, my mother dragged us seven kids to church and I hid behind a pillar so that my classmates would not see me in my old dress. Peace in the household reigned once more when the precious cheque from father arrived the following day and we managed a butter cake and were able to get new clothes for the New Year.

Still we managed to cut down the naraththang kai (kind of local lemon) tree and painted it for Christmas tree and it won first prize in the church competition. It was a work of art by my eldest brother who has his father’s talent as an artist.

My mother having transferred the coconut estate and bungalow to my father bequeathed to her by her own father to follow his dream of pursuing fine arts abroad did not even have a gold chain and instead she went to the jewellers to get a fake gold chain to wear for Christmas mid-night mass.

I am not accusing my father of being a frolicking fun-lover but he had dreams beyond his capacity. He neither drank nor smoked and he gave us the best in life. But he was a dreamer. Although educated, he lived in a dream world where he hoped life was not about daily survival but a journey towards an idyllic future where his children would aspire for higher things such as scientific research, the universe and its existence and rise above materialism.

We did not have children’s books and instead forced to look at graphic pictures of African culture and traditions in National Geographic and Illustrated Weekly of India; hardly pleasures for a 10 year old.

Instead of visiting Tamil cinema we were taken to YMCA where they showed documentaries of jam making and cars.

It was my mother who was only educated up to Standard Eight who had a rational mind and both feet on the ground. Although her faith in her husband was without question but while he was away pursuing his dream, she kept us seven kids in clean clothes, balanced meals and made sure we attended school without fail.

My father mellowed with time and we won in the end as we asserted ourselves and demanded we go to cinemas or else we would not go for tuition classes to improve our exam grades.

And since 1965 we had Christmas cake and new clothes every Christmas. And we lived happily ever after until July 1983 when we lost all of our possessions in Colombo.

Season’s greetings, peace and goodwill in the New Year and may our island be blessed with the simple pleasures we once enjoyed.