Fifty years ago, I spent my first Christmas away from home. It was a Christmas that will vividly remain in my memory. I was a student in Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India.
As Christmas approached, I felt a longing creep into me. I began to miss the excitement and joy of Christmas at home, the making of gifts, which was encouraged at our house, the laughter of Christmas cookie baking with Nana rolling and cutting, Mama painting dough with egg white and manning the oven, my brother and I adding the colored sugars and Papa telling funny stories, selecting music and making a few silly cookies, causing Mother to say, “Oh, Frank.”
In India, there would be no family powwow to deter-mine outside decorations, no dropping in of family and friends to eat, laugh and sing together. There would be no odors of pine from the tree and festooned boughs, no cinnamon, clove and ginger rising from the kitchen, no scent of bay leaf candles in the air. There would be no shopping for those in need. I even wondered if Mass would be the same.
We Catholics received word that transportation would be sent for us and anyone else who want to come to midnight Mass. It would take us to the old British cantonment on the other side of town, where the Catholic church was. Most of the Catholics at the university were South Indians from Kerala, but there was also an African fellow from Kenya, a Polish fellow and me. Two of my Protestant American friends said they wanted to go, and a German fellow, a declared atheist, also joined us.
We Americans decided to dress up, putting aside our sandals, our saris and savar-kameeses. I had brought from home a beautiful gray walking suit to which I added nylons and high heels. The other Americans dressed in their “Sunday best,” and we waited for our bus to pick us up. However, the bus was not a bus, but the back of a farm cattle truck with its Christmas authenticity being the smell of the manger. I couldn’t believe it.
As we rode threw the dark night, stars above glistened; stillness was interrupted only by a donkey bray, a water buffalo snort or the mumble of men sitting around a campfire, huddling to keep warm. Those who travel through space must have some of the same feeling that I had that night… It was truly an adventure into the unknown.
When we got to the church, I learned how the known can also seem alien. The church was devoted to Mary, whose statue stood high above the altar, wrapped in twinkling lights, looking like she had just come from a casino. Paper colored laces zigzagged from wall to wall overhead. When Mass began, the plaster child Jesus was paraded on a high platform, similar to what I had witnessed honoring Siva, Khrishna and Ganesh in processions throughout India.
Slowly the transformation from the different to the meaningful began. The Mass, still in Latin, was the same, and the warmth of praying together eased my outsider feelings. None of us thought to bring purses, and so had no money for the collection … none of us except our atheist friend, who generously handed out money to each of us.
After Mass we were invited to tea and tiffin. The boys were ushered into one room, the girls another. However, we Americans broke with their tradition and went in with the boys we knew from school.
Later that day, we went to the International House for Christ-mas dinner. It was beautiful. The tables and surroundings were decorated by no less than two Buddhist friends, one actually a Buddhist monk in saffron robes, who were studying there. Mid-meal we heard laughter and singing coming from the adja-cent room. French doors separated us, and at some point they were pushed back to reveal a table of Soviet students who were passing through Vara-nasi. The Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred just a couple months earlier, and the Soviets were consi-dered our arch-enemies, people we were to fear and hate. Yet, they too were celebrating.
That year in India, there was no cookie baking, no present buying, no Christmas tree, but there was family — a greater family. When I recall the German’s giving, the Kerala Indians’ efforts to celebrate, the Buddhists’ decor, the Soviets’ shared laughter and song; when I remember our Hindu cook bustling to make everything deliciously Western while our busboy giggled with joy as he served us, my heart is filled with the meaning of the hymn, “Let There be Peace on Earth” … “with God as our father, family all are we. Let me live with my family, in perfect harmony.”
May all of us come to realize how much beauty, love, and goodness there is in those who are different, with whom we may philosophically disagree.
Penelope Suleiman, 427 Wickham, is a longtime Manhattan resident who is retired from the Adult Learning Center.