Written by Kshaema Susan Mathew
The opening scene of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ begins with Tevye singing in his rich baritone about the importance of tradition.
I never understood what this burly Jew was crooning about. My younger self was dismissive of these mechanical practices passed on from generation to generation. She believed it to be mere malarkey.
In my house, the peak of tradition was most apparent during the season of Christmas.
My mother insisted on the Star and Christmas Tree being set up on the first day of December. Why? We would always ask. Tradition, she would say.
You know how the movies depict this scene as one filled with Christmas cheer, you know, the smell of mulled wine, the sound of carols and a jolly family decorating the tree?
Au contraire, in my house, it was a mother dragging her two children to decorate a tree that had a million pieces to assemble. Dust from all the decorations being relegated to a loft for a year. A star that every year would have a technical difficulty in being set up and the sound of endless bickering.
Mamma would bake a family recipe plum cake that could feed an entire small village. She would make sure that we sat around making the perfectly shaped kalkals and cookies, to put in little boxes that had to be delivered to everyone who she knew. For some reason this tradition would also cause a fight because she needed it to be the perfect shape and size and I just did not have the patience.
Leading up to Christmas, Mamma Mathews (her moniker provided by my friends) would ensure a bespoke lunch or dinner for all our friends and family.
On Christmas day, we would be dressed in our Sunday best, meticulously selected by her and attend Church. My mother ensured that amidst all the traditions we understood the true meaning of Christmas.
After Church, tradition dictated that we call all our family and friends, near and far to wish them the season’s greetings. Year on year, this tradition irked my brother and I the most, because we knew we were being kept away from the decadent breakfast that was awaiting us.
This year, being away from home made me reflect upon these Christmas traditions. The tree was not in its place like clockwork, the baking had not commenced. Even being away, I felt a strange way when I saw my house bare and my mother not in her ugly christmas apron. When I asked her about it, she just said matter-of-factly, you aren’t here, so for what!
This is what made me realise the value of these repeated gestures are, how they are entrenched in meaning and symbolism. Tevye was right, it keeps our balance. My mother, the central figure of all my traditions, keeps this balance for me.
She did it all these years, to create a magical experience for her children, to bond the family together. And now the time has come, the baton has been passed, and it is time for me to give to her the gift of a Christmas experience.