LAST_UPDATEFri, 22 Jun 2018 7pm

Sunday Spotlight: Forgotten Christmas Traditions

Many of the Christmas traditions are slowly disappearing from today’s generations as the celebration is given a more contemporary twist, writes Suzanna Pillay RESPLENDENT in a wine-red laced cocktail dress, Selangor and Federal Territory Eu-rasian Association president Sheila De Costa was beaming with joy as she narrated her Christmas traditions.

Joined by her mother, Shirley, at their home in Sri Kembangan, Sheila remembered that Christmas was celebrated on a more spiritual tone when she was a child.

“In the 70’s, when I was a child, we had carolling and Nativity plays... Christmas was a more religious festival then. Nowadays, gift-giving and Santa Claus have become so big that some people even regard Christmas as a commercial activity in December,” she said.

Santa figurines, reindeers and ornaments were neatly arranged around her living room, a nod to the festive season, while three Christmas trees decorated in colourful baubles were a reminder of the festive celebration’s significance, which Sheila was eager to stress.

“While it is great that a lot of people celebrate Christmas, the festival seemed sanitised and commercialised now. To many of us, there’s more to Christmas than Santa Claus.

“Some don’t even know the significance of the Christmas Tree or the star that is placed on top of it.

“The tree signifies everlasting life, while the star is the Christmas Star which revealed the birth of Jesus to the Three Wise Men and led them to Bethlehem.” Besides the lack of Nativity plays now, Sheila said carolling, too, had become less spontaneous and joyful than it was in the past.

“It has become clinical, with the requirement of having to apply to be a caroler months ahead of Christmas and the tiresome rehearsal process.

“In the past, it was fun. We would hire a bus and go around the estates, visiting all the homes in our neighbourhood and belting out the carols as best as we could, and only going home at 3am or 4am.”

Homes would organise Christmas parties to mark the occasion and she remembered that her grandfather single-handedly cooked a feast for 100 guests from scratch, something which very few do now, as people prefer to hire caterers.
“Perhaps this is because guest expectations are very high today. They expect big, elaborate meals.”

During her childhood in Johor, the preparations and build up to Christmas would start in November, when school closed for the long year end holidays.
“My mother would start making her fruit cakes in early November and she would keep it to only be opened on Christmas... so it was special. As she poured liquor into it, you could smell a lovely aroma.

“We liked helping her make the cakes because the highlight of the task was to lick the bowl at the end of the cooking process. It was lovely.

“Today, it is something my children are not interested in, maybe because we have so much good food around.”

Sheila said her family always got their turkey from Kuala Lumpur, as her dad would purchase the bird during his business trips to the city.

“We also used to make our own pickle from scratch, drying out the chilies and papaya for six weeks in the sun. But, today it is easier to buy it,”

Shirley said, adding that her family, who was originally from Sarawak, adored her mother’s roast turkey and mince pies at Christmas.

“My grandmother used to bake cakes for Christmas as well, and she would keep it in an airtight tin and hide it under her bed... away from our prying eyes. She would only open it on Christmas.

“After I got married, I learnt how to cook curry and make pickles from my husband’s relatives, who are Portuguese Eurasians. My family are Eurasians of English descent and we did not have curries or sambals for our festive spreads, so it was a whole new experience for me.”

Leafing through a pile of old family photos in her living room, Sheila picked two which captured her as a teenager posing with Santa. She said it reflected one of her fondest Christmas memories, when her family travelled to Singapore for their Christmas shopping.

“Back then, it costs about RM3 to RM4 to see Santa Claus. Going to see him was a big thing. Today, children see him everywhere, so I don’t know whether it is a special experience to meet Santa anymore.”

Spending Christmas in Sarawak in the early 70s with her mother's side of the family was also a memory Sheila treasured.

“Another highlight was speaking to Santa Claus on the phone. It was made possible through Telekom Malaysia, which organised a fun hotline for children to call and speak to ‘Santa’.

“We didn’t even have a phone in our house, but our neighbours allowed us to use their phone to ring the number and listen to Santa’s message.”

During her childhood, Shirley remembered that her family would get their fresh pine Christmas tree from Sarawak’s Forestry Department, which would deliver them free of charge.

“The pine trees smelled wonderful. There’s nothing like that fresh pine scent.”

For Philip Zarsadias, getting his family’s Christmas trees from the nearby convent close to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca was a memory he cherished.

“The trees had a fantastic smell and were unique, unlike today’s plastic trees.

“The convent had an abundance of pine trees in its backyard, which was located by the coast. We had to ask the nuns for the trees and were allowed to chop them down for the festive celebrations,” he said.

He remembered his childhood celebrations of Christmas as fun, with everyone assigned with his or her own set of chores.

“We lived by the sea. To decorate our homes, a few days before Christmas, we would collect sand from the sea and put it around our house.

“We would collect branches from the pine trees at the sea side for our home decorations.”

He would help his mother make Christmas goodies, like cakes and pineapple tarts, weeks before Christmas day, with help from his siblings.

“In those days my mother did not have an oven, so she would bake the cakes in a kerosene tin over charcoal fire insulated with coconut husks. Getting the correct temperature was critical as there were no temperature controlling dials that she could use.

“Equally laborious to make were the pineapple tarts. I had to skin the pineapple and remove its ‘eyes’.

“It was a time consuming task, but the end results were rewarding when we enjoyed the tarts.”

He said the family would get together for supper after the midnight mass, a tradition that continued today in his own family.

“We usually have macaroni and a chicken or Shepherd’s pie, then we unwrap our Christmas presents after supper.”

On Christmas, the spread includes Devil Curry, roast chicken and Portuguese chili pickle, which he prepares for his family.

“One thing that I miss most about Christmas traditions is the practice of visiting family and friends.

“When I lived in the settlement, we could do this easily, but it is not something that you can do in the city,” Zarsadias said.