’Tis the Season to Be Jolly: How Christmas Carols Helped Me Rediscover My Lost Holiday Spirit

Culture

’Tis the Season to Be Jolly: How Christmas Carols Helped Me Rediscover My Lost Holiday Spirit

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

On Sunday, my phone pinged with a WhatsApp notification: “So what are we doing Tuesday night?” asked the group. I almost replied, “Trying to get some sleep???” until it hit me. Oh. Christmas. I wondered if I had anything to wear for Christmas Eve, before deciding to not reply at all.

In the past few years, I’ve tried to maintain an indifference toward religious festivities, but growing up in a Catholic household, it’s impossible to escape Christmas in December, when carols become the month’s designated soundtrack. As a child, between watching my brother set up Baby Jesus’ crib and Maa and Papa prepare the mouthwatering kuswar, the melodious carols were just the right amount of plum in the cake called Christmas.

Maa has a treasured collection of five or six cassette tapes she used to ring in the cheer of Christmas each year. If Spotify Wrap existed back in the late ’90s or early noughties, Boney M would’ve been crowned as our household’s #1 Top Artist, just for the number of times their Christmas songs were played in December. But I wasn’t complaining. As the voices wrapped our home in their Christmas spirit, I always wondered if my little heart would combust with all the warmth and happiness they filled me with. But as jubilant as the studio versions were to listen to, it was witnessing the local youth choir singing for the Christmas Eve mass at our neighbourhood church that made it a celebration.

I’ve tried to maintain an indifference toward religious festivities, but growing up in a Catholic household, it’s impossible to escape Christmas in December.

As the volunteers would hand out carol sheets, I would spend a couple of minutes scanning the hymns lined up for the night. Every time I recognised a carol, I would excitedly tug at Maa’s saree pallu. In those moments, as Papa encouraged me to unabashedly sing along with the choir, I always imagined I was living out a musical. Year after year as mass would conclude with a momentous rendition of “Joy to the World”, the content smile etched on every face around me made me believe that they felt at home in the comfort of the carols too.

Studying in a convent school only added to the Christmas extravaganza. Between reenacting the story of the birth of Christ and decorating the classrooms with the season’s reds and greens, Christmas carols soundtracked the chaos. Every free lecture was spent practising the most popular tunes. Dressed in our coordinated fits of red tops, black skirts, and Santa hats, taking to the stage along with the other girls to belt out carols to my heart’s content was my personal annual euphoric experience.

At 10, when my family and I moved to a more “Christian locality”, I got the opportunity to go Christmas wassailing. December evenings after school were spent planning pre-Christmas activities for the family and practising shortlisted carols that could also be danced to. The excitement as the day approached was surreal. Playing the role of a wassailer for the first time in my life had left me both ecstatic and expectedly, a nervous wreck. Two nights before Christmas, I found myself moving from one society to another along with six other kids, quietly assembling ourselves in the open grounds as we piqued the interest of the people around. As our youth leader softly counted down from three, every other thought almost became secondary then. Opening with the quiet Silent Night, Holy Night, our shy smiles were mimicked by the onlookers, most likely writing us off as angelic little children. There on things moved quickly and got livelier as we performed, indulging kids and adults alike who thanked us for making their Christmas a little better. Some others handed us money and patted our backs or offered Christmas goodies as we wrapped up our performance with Feliz Navidad, handmade pom poms glimmering under the street lights. The smiles and laughter adorning that December evening still remain a dear memory to me.

December evenings after school were spent planning pre-Christmas activities for the family and practising shortlisted carols that could also be danced to.

Years later, I tried my luck at the same church choir that would make my younger self swoon in delight. Of course, the singers weren’t the same and the choir had moved on to accepting newcomers like me, but much like wassailing, it felt like an opportunity I had to let myself experience at least once. Between college, studies, and singing, December had started passing by in a blur. Weeks later on Christmas Eve, instead of clutching onto my carol sheets with glee, I was now holding onto my anxiety. I was worried about singing off-key and ruining the carols for kids who held the same admiration towards the choir like me. But maybe it was the solace that the carols provided every December that left me singing in high spirits, notes be damned, as mass carried on through the night.

The following December, I found myself back in the classrooms practising newer carols along with the faces who were kind enough to let me stay. But as much as I enjoyed singing along with the choir as a child, I grew to dislike singing as part of the choir in the years after. Even as I wrapped up my second year with the choir singing the same “Joy To The World” that I’d once fallen in love with, I knew I wasn’t coming back for a third.

As we moved houses again, the Christmas decorations at home got minimal, and homemade kuswar delicacies became a thing of the past. But the Christmas carols stayed. We no longer play them 24/7, and December no longer has the same soundtrack, but sometimes, Papa will play the carols on his phone in the middle of a December night or Maa will sit with her hymn books under the fairy lights. On Sunday, when I accompanied Maa to the mall, the distant sound of children singing carols drew me like the music of the Pied Piper. I haven’t stopped humming the carols since. No matter how different things become, Christmas only comes once a year.

Among all these changes, I still look forward to attending the Christmas mass, solely to hold the carol sheets again. And that is the answer to the question of what I will be doing this Chirstmas.

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