When I was a child in the 80s, families from Assam, a state in north east India, who had settled in the UK would meet to celebrate Christmas Day. This post weaves together a collection of memories of those bygone days of friends, togetherness, laughter and joy .
It was the warmth at first. Usually on the coldest of nights, my first waking breath was an exhalation filled with vapour. Without central heating, my bedroom window on those coldest night formed thin layers of feathery ice on the inside. But Christmas morning was different – the warm air from the kitchen wafted upwards bringing the steamy aroma of stuffing, onions and a roasting turkey.
And because my bedroom was east-facing, it housed a thapana (altar) on a chest of drawers which comprised of a gamusa (a cloth woven from red and white cotton threads) draped over a copy of the kirtana (the Assamese Gita). For the first 18 years of my life, I would usually wake to the wafts of sweet incense smoke from this, the family’s private place of prayer.
On this special morning the scents of Christ’s feast and the incense to honour Lord Krishna would converge.
Mum would have been up for hours preparing a 25 pound turkey by the gas cooker. It was a huge bird that took an eternity to defrost and would feed over 40 Assamese guests coming in to our terrace house in south London to celebrate Christmas Day.
As I came round from slumber and realised the date, an unbearable excitement would brim up in me. This morning an unbearable curiosity born from squeezing and shaking wrapped presents, would be satiated; answers long suppressed would find utterance.
Today was the 25th of December, the final cardboard flap of the advent calendar, the day the school choir rejoiced about, the day Boney M told us, Mary’s boy-child Jesus Christ was born.
As a child it was special mostly for the presents. Let’s face it children first and foremost are materialists. My sister would open hers neatly, folding the wrapping paper as she went. I though would tear them apart in voracious expectation as if my life depended on it.
When it came to opening the Christmas cards we felt for the fat envelopes that might carry £5 notes, Woolworth vouchers or 10p coins.
10p was a considerable sum for a child in the 80s, enough for a sweetshop goody bag filled with Mojos, red liquorice shoelaces, sherbet UFOs and gummy bears. Or, if you were so inclined, you could blow the whole lot on a packet of Space Dust to crackle and tickle your mouth.
After the presents were opened, we prepared the house; mum checked the oven, basted the turkey, boiled the pudding, washed the coins, covered them in foil and placed them conspicuously in the pudding dishes so that they’d be easy to find and not choke guests to death.
No details of a typical Christmas ever went amiss in an Assamese Christmas in the UK.
Dad would unhinge the living room door to make more space and would bring the kitchen table and dining table together, aligned end to end – one a little higher than the other – and cover them with a table cloth.
My sister would write the place names in flowing calligraphy and put them by the plates on the tables. I cleared the shreds of wrapping paper, bits of tinsel from the carpet, and repositioned the Christmas cards that had slipped down and congregated at the bottom of the string the dangled from the picture rail.
By noon, when the windows of the house had properly steamed up and the air was rich with the smell of roast potatoes and Oxo gravy with a touch of spice, mum’s transformation happened
She would go upstairs removing her oven gloves and oily apron, her cheeks aglow from the kitchen heat, tufts of hair escaping from her beehive.
An hour later, just before the first guests arrived, she would come down in a pristine silk mekhela sador (an Assamese sari), in immaculate hair and makeup, smelling of Elizabeth Arden’s Fifth Avenue.
Our warm, steam-filled little house soon congregated with guests – the parents sat in the front room, the men in suits and ties, the women in traditional Assamese silks, all of them uncles and aunties, none of them relatives – that’s the Indian way. They spoke in Assamese and occasionally a raucous laugh would resound through the house. It was usually a haughty laugh, and the joke was usually an innuendo.
The other rooms of the house were quieter filled with the chatter of children’s voices speaking English in native accents from all the corners of the UK – the Tamulis from Sheffield, the Sharmas from Yorkshire, the Sharmas from Glasgow, the Saharias from Newcastle and the Barthakurs from Swindon; then there were the London families, the Baruas, the Barooahs and the Baruahs, the Kakatis, the Katakis and the Barkatakis, the Sikdars, the Goswamis, the Lahons and the Boras.
The children ate first, a Christmas meal with the full trimmings of turkey, sprouts, roast potatoes, carrots, turnips and cranberry sauce all brought alive with lashings of steaming gravy. From the crackers emerged paper party hats and bad jokes and small plastic gifts made in Hong Kong, like a small screwdriver, a magnifying glass and a clip on moustache.
Later the adults ate the same meal but with the addition of a large jar of shared mango or chilly pickle.
It was time to keep the children entertained. Auntie Jolly’s Christmases would have treasure hunts with clues on pieces of paper scattered around the house, or a big brown sack suspended under the stairs which, at a pull of a string, would shower us children with gifts galore; Roon organised a quiz one year, Ivy’s mum a pass the parcel.
In 1984 we sang a rendition of Band Aid’s ‘Do they Know It’s Christmas?’, trying our best to understand the lyrics (‘And it’s a world of stratosphere?’).
One year there was a synchronised dance routine of Funky Town by Rita, Ivy and Loya. Yes it’s fair to say we kept ourselves amused at Christmas.
I was a decade older than most of the second generation British Assamese. In my late teens, it was my turn to keep a dozen children all below 10 years of age under control. Now this is quite a responsible task for a 17 year old. Done wrong it cod escalate in to chaos and tears.
Some years the children huddled round a little TV to watch a quiver of coloured lines that screeched for 15 minutes. Rarely have young children sat for so long watching a mundane screen in silence. This, in its day, was called ‘Loading’, a process whereby 64k of RAM on a home computer would covert screeching data on a cassette tape in to games like Pacman, Pole Position or Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Best of all, and the game the children loved best, for this was still the time of the cold war, was Raid Over Moscow.
And there the children would sit addicted to a video game till just before 3 o’clock when a voice would summon the children downstairs.
– Why? we’d shout back.
– Because Queen is making speech, came the reply
We dragged our heals down the stairs to see the Queen dressed in blue tell us how proud she was of her grandchildren. We weren’t quite sure why we had to watch this but the parents took it seriously and shooshed us when we tried to talk. Worse it was on BBC and ITV – half of all the TV channels. After ten minutes the broadcast was over and we went back upstairs to raid Moscow.
After checking the TV listings on CEEFAX to find a paltry offering of Russ Abbot, Noel Edmonds and Bullseye, my only fall-back option was a VHS cassette of ‘Back to Future’. The children seemed to like it so we watched it every time they visited from 1985 to 1990 and they grew up to be able to gratuitously quote from the film (‘Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads?’) and know at an early age, what a gigawatt was or what plutonium was used for.
We would organise pantomimes for the children to perform in front of the adults, or record them on dad’s video camera – it was proper amateur dramatics using props and mum’s lipsticks, blushers for make-up and her high heels, and dad’s jackets for costumes; there was Puss in Boots and Jack and the Beanstalk, culminating in 1990 with a hastily improvised tale of a young girl taunted by two cruel step-sisters who escapes and invades Kuwait. Thus the pantomime Sadam-arella was born.
The parents watched in a semi-comatose state of over-eating but after a round of coffee would start a sing-along. This would start with a Christmas carol, a hearty rendition of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ which ended when they realised that no one knew the second verse.
Infact no one knew another Christmas carol, so they improvised and sang ‘Happy Christmas to you’ to the tune of Happy Birthday. Appropriate, said uncle, for Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.
In the evening my dad would bring out his harmonium, a small boxy accordion with a keyboard at the top and a pump on the back, and would sing his composition senai moi zao dei – then Auntie Bhabani, Uncle Dilip and Uncle Moni would all takes turns to sing Assamese songs, perhaps a Bhupen Hazarika number, perhaps folks songs, perhaps love songs, rich in sentiment from a land faraway that they had loved and left behind.
Bihu dancing on Christmas Day
Soon music resonated from the back room. Band Aid, Slade, Wham and other pop numbers heralded the children’s disco underway. Soon adults joined and Christmas pop gave way to up-tempo Assamese bihu music, with thumping drum beats and bouncing, rhythmic lyrics. The parents start to yelp, shake their hips and twist their palms in the air. It was free-form, unself-conscious and joyous, some did body-popping, some the Birdy Song or Saturday Night Fever moves – even a Conga started up. The volume increased, as a single organism of dance filled the room.
It was lucky Mrs Shimmins next door was deaf. She wouldn’t believe we had forty people in the back room dancing anyway.
So that was Christmas Day, Assam style in the UK in the 1980s – it was a wonderful day that ended much like it has started for me, filled with warmth and joy.
By morning, when the tables and chairs were put back, the door re-hinged and the dishes washed and wiped, just the Christmas tree, the cards, the wisps of incense for Lord Krishna and fond, utterly fond memories of our Assamese Christmas remained.