2006, Essay, New Delhi, Tehelka

This Christmas, Santa’s Claws

This piece was first published in Tehelka in the December of 2006.

Since her first yule’tide, my daughter has had a little Christmas tree. A couple of years later, my son joined her under it and quickly effected unwritten but unambiguous joint ownership. Although both have now shot taller than the tree, I somehow always imagine them crawling under its jagged circumference. The tree has a wooden base, now cracked under several sibling topplings, and faux conifer leaves woven into branches made of wire. They wrap neatly on the trunk and, end-January, the tree becomes a stump three feet high to be put away to hibernate the hot months. Winter’s a wee and special season and almost unknowingly a little family tradition has sprung around that tree: winter arrives the day that stump becomes tree again, shedding summer dust, untwining trussed wings, becoming a magical corner in the house under coaxing from my children’s still quite little fingers. But the stump becoming tree is not the entire unfurling of our winter ritual. Perhaps it’s just the start of it. A little red sack with a bell on its back is evacuated from some recess — there’s forever this forgetting about where it was stashed — and its contents poured out. A litter of baubles — berries, mistletoe fronds, miniature pinecones, little fairies, stars in silver and gold, bells big and small and, of course, socks. They are crimson, velvet, embroidered with golden thread. The trove is then quarrelled over — who gets to festoon the tree with what. Battles of mine and thine are fought. That’s how that base got its cracks. That’s how the slow pirouette of our celebration begins.

Further on into the season, on a colder and preferably foggy night, the tree gets lit. It usually also is the night the fireplace gets going and between the timber and the tree, there is no requirement for lights anymore. There used to be little coloured bulbs alternately twinkling but those lights went dead in their box sometime between last winter and this one. This year there are ochre-white lights on it, little capsules of them, like an invasion of fireflies.

And the other day, I bought Santa hats to make Christmas warmer for my children, soft, red, with snow-white pom-poms. They came off a little girl at the traffic light. Fifty for a pair, she said and I haggled. Forty then, she said. I haggled. Twenty? No, she said, but take, for your children, thirty, last price. Twenty-five, I said. I gave her thirty and she handed me the hats and a five-rupee coin. I took both and shamed myself. That unclad child was cold on the street.

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