Having decorated our Christmas Tree this year, I stood beside it reminiscing about the many Christmas trees that we as children had decorated as we grew up in Kerala, India. Kerala being in the tropical region is blessed with a cool climate in winter with a temperature of about 25oC and obviously not even the remote likelihood of snow.
Decorating homes with green plants, leaves and branches, mainly to ward off the monotony of snow covered winters, has been a tradition much before the birth of Christ. In many regions, it is believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. Even if they did not, it brought cheer and festivity to the otherwise dull, indoor bound, bone chilling winter days and nights.
Germans are believed to have started the Christmas Tree tradition in the 16th century. German settlers who migrated to Canada from the United States in the 18th century brought this tradition with them. It became an official symbol of Christmas celebration in the Commonwealth when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at the Windsor Castle in 1848. It then became a Christmas tradition throughout England, US, and Canada.
During our vacation to our native place in Kerala in October 2019, standing next to our ancestral home, I could see in my mind’s eye the front courtyard where once a Guava tree stood, leaning on to the roof. I narrated to Marina as to how we as kids – I was less than ten years old – used to climb the Guava tree to leap on to the roof, may be to pick up a ball that had got caught on the roof tile or just for fun. Marina then came out with a story of a similar Guava tree in her ancestral home and how she executed many similar ‘monkey tricks.’
The mere sight of the high roof sent a chill up my spine as I could not even fathom my climbing it now. The thought struck me that perhaps I would never even have permitted our children the fun of climbing on such a tree and get on to the roof. The question that intrigued me was ‘How come parents of those days allowed their children such (mis)adventures?‘ After we children grew up into our teens, our father cut the guava tree in 1976 as it was posing a threat to the very existence of the tiles on the roof. Moreover, we children had grown ‘too old’ to climb on the rooftop to clear the fallen leaves, a periodic ritual.
During our early childhood, this Guava tree was decked up by the four of us brothers, to be the Christmas Tree and the decorations were maintained until New Year which coincided with the annual festivity of our Parish Church. We used to decorate the tree with paper buntings, electric lights and stars, all hand-made using bamboo and craft paper. The ritual of star-making would begin a fortnight before Christmas. We had to cut a reed-bamboo (Ochlandra Genera) from our neighbour’s farm, split it into thin veins and then assemble it to form five or six-cornered stars. The exercise led by our eldest brother often resulted in physical bouts when one of us four brothers would disagree about the methodology or sometimes unintentionally undo the work done. Whatever it was, it all ended up with the hoisting of the stars that we had painstakingly built, up onto the Guava Christmas Tree.
For the Christmas of 1976, after the guava tree was cut down, it was a Jamba (Eugenia Javanica) tree in the vicinity that we chose to be blessed as our Christmas Tree. The Jamba tree in Malayalam is referred to as wax apple, love apple, java apple, chomphu (in Thai), bell fruit (In Taiwan), Jamaican apple, water apple, mountain apple, jamrul (in Bengali), jumbu (Sri Lanka) and jamalac in French. Being rich in fibre, they ease digestion and is mostly eaten with salt to give a better taste. The tree bears bell shaped pink fruits in early Winter. With the pink fruits on a green leafy tree making a striking contrast, the Jamba is ideally suited to be dressed up as a Christmas Tree.
This Jamba tree also witnessed many events of our growing up years. It must have been planted by Amma sometime in the mid-sixties. The tree being a slow grower, grew to about two feet by 1968. That was when our youngest brother, then aged four, came up with an unusual request. He wanted someone younger to him. It was all because he was invariably at the losing end of our many childhood fights. At the time, our parents solved the problem by getting him a kid, a real goat’s kid, a female one. That was how goat rearing commenced at home.
This kid soon thereafter developed an immense liking for the leaves of the young Jamba tree. Our Father tried every trick in his book to ensure the safety of the young tree. He fenced the area around the tree with thorny branches, but this kid easily managed to break through and reach the much sought after leaves. He then sprayed the leaves with cow dung and cow’s urine; come next rain, to be washed clean and the kid foraged on to it at the next opportune moment. Thus the Jamba tree was cursed to be a stunted bonsai, but it was stubborn enough to manage a rudimentary existence in the front courtyard.
In 1974, the goats were sold off as we had shifted to rubber plantation from tapioca cultivation. This resulted in lack of forage and grass for the goats. This ensured ‘Moksha’ for the Jamba tree and it grew in leaps and bounds with a kind of pent up vigour and in 1976 it was about ten feet tall, laden with the bell-shaped pink fruit by early December. With the guava tree cut, our eldest brother designated the Jamba tree to be the Christmas tree for the year. Fully decorated with all the pink fruits, it turned out to be the prettiest Christmas Tree that we ever had. As I pictured that decorated Christmas tree of 1976, I couldn’t help being swept aside by a flood of nostalgia.
(Images : Courtesy Google)