Growing up Catholic in a Muslim country was really no big deal at all... at least not for me. When I grew up in Malaysia respect and understanding for people of other faiths was a matter of fact. Muslims, Hindus, Taoist, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians were fervent in their faiths, cultures and traditions and respected each other for theirs.
I have to credit my mother for initiating the Christmas decorations at our home. We were one of 2 Catholic families living on our street. So when the Christmas season came along she would setup the Christmas Tree project among the neighborhood kids
. This meant that we were all decorating the tree together. It didn't matter what faith you were.
Over the years this event became quite the neighborhood tradition. Usually on the week of about the 12th of December the house would be filled with neighbor kids all working on the tree. The excitement and anticipation on "tree day" was only surpassed by Christmas Eve.
In my memory there was only 1 traditional tree
that ever graced our home. Mum was quite the crafty person so ideas for the Christmas tree was always a little outside of the norm.
In the picture above Mum was inspired by the a Winter scene with leafless branches. So, a branch of a Guava tree was cut, sprayed white and decorated. Looking back I have to admit that there was a certain elegance in it's starkness.
One year we scrapped the idea of a tree altogether and went with a cotton snowman instead. It was cute and all but not a particular favorite of mine. I guess I was ready for a new motif and it came the following year.
When I was 8 or 9 she totally scrapped the idea that the Christmas tree should have anything to do with Winter. She had a point because we did live in the tropics. That year, bamboo was sprayed silver and served up as the central ornament representing Christmas. I have to say that Mum's idea of going "local" had quite the stunning effect. So much so, we repeated the same idea the following year (this time in gold) and the results were breathtaking.
The usual neighborhood "Christmas Tree Crew" had by now dwindled to a stalwart 4 or 5. They included my neighborhood buddies including Tambi, Ganeshen
, Balan and yours truly. We would begin at 3 PM and 5 or 6 hours later step back to admire the results. Relatives and friends had by now come to expect to see something different at our home for Christmas... and they usually did. Sometimes a little more different than they were ready for... more on that later.
By the time I was 12 I had taken over "creative control" of the tree decorating duties. One year I decided that 3 "payongs" (paper umbrellas), opened in 3 different stages would make up the tree. Here are a couple of pictures of said tree... one without lights and the other one lit.
At this point I guess I should explain how we celebrated Christmas. Christmas Eve was always my day. When I was younger the neighborhood kids would all come by and each of them received a present from my parents. Nothing fancy... usually a little toy or trinklet of sorts. After all, during Chinese New Year all us kids got "ang pows
" (little red packets of money) from the parents of our Chinese friends. So in the big scheme of things us kids always scored "big time" during all the major festivals
celebrated in the country.
When I grew older, my "crew"
(now about 15-20) came by on the evening of Christmas Eve. By 10 PM we would walk about 5 blocks the local church for Midnight Mass. I went out of religious obligation... my non-Christian friends went to check out the girls. (O.K. I did too but don't tell my Mum.) We would be back home by 1 AM for the Christmas feast prepared by her. The menu always included Eurasian Chicken Pie, Devil Curry
, Curry Puffs
, Sebak (a sort of Eurasian salad), Pineapple Tarts
and Sugee Cake .
Then games would be set up at various areas of the house. Once we were tired from playing carrom
, monopoly or blackjack we would all stretch out on the floor and fall asleep... usually by 4 or 5 AM.
By 9 or 10 the next morning everybody would get up and straighten out the house. Usually 3 of my crew would stay. The reason for this was simple... Christmas Day was when my parents had their friends and workmates over, so my friends and me became the "waiters" for their do. This practice continued even after my Dad passed away when I was 12.
I posted the picture of the "horn" or "saipan" hat above only because I couldn't find a picture of the Christmas tree I made by stringing 4 of them together one year. That was one of my all time favorites.
This tree made of halved coconut shells on a rattan tree was the second last one I designed back home. By this time we had moved to the new house. Mum had retired from government service and we had to leave the old neighborhood
Yet, Ganeshen and Balan would still come by to help set up the Christmas decorations for Mum even after I left for the US. Mum delighted in their company and the fact that the little tradition she started with the neighborhood kids kept going into their middle age. They continued to visit every year to help decorate until Mum finally moved here to join me 7 years ago. We still hear from them at Christmas. It is this sharing of the season with my friends that I now miss the most... but times and places are different. The memories stay and we move on.
I'll end with this picture of the very last (and most controvertial) Christmas Tree I designed and created in Malaysia before I moved here in 1980. Yes, it is constructed out of panties! This particular tree over the years has become legend and is now part of the lore among friends and family back home.
Our Christmas is celebrated quietly now. I decorate the mantle over the fireplace in the living room... no trees. However, I make sure that the Devil Curry and/or the Eurasian Chicken Pie is still on the table for Christmas dinner. And now, it is I who does the cooking.
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