Workshops by Thiagi, Inc. | Search

A Tamil Christmas

"There's NO Santa Claus!" proclaimed Raja when he was seven years old. "I know you guys bought all these gifts and left them for me."

He was unwrapping his gifts with glee on Christmas day and I had commented something about Santa Claus being generous.

Raja was too rational for a seven-year old. Not like me when I was his age and believed in Santa Claus against all odds.

* * *

Father always claimed that he had to shoulder the responsibilities of both parents after Mother died. He was probably right, but Maniannan contributed to taking care of us three little ones. Father dutifully provided for us and Maniannan playfully made us happy.

Maniannan was my brother and he was eight years older than me. His real name was Mani, but we attached to respectful suffix "annan" because he was our elder brother.

Maniannan was especially nice to me. One of the nicest things he did was to read stories to me. I don't remember when it all began, but he claimed that he read me my first story when I was two years old to stop me from wailing and upsetting Father.

These were not bed-time stories. He read to me in the afternoons, after school and before Father came home from work. (When Father returned, we had to do our household chores and homework.) Maniannan also read me stories during the weekends when Father was busy with other things.

At first Maniannan enjoyed reading to me, but as we grew older, he preferred to play with his big friends. I blackmailed him into reading stories by threatening to tell Father about the time he said he was going to a special class and went to play cricket or about the time he charged Father two annas extra for the bananas and bought some strong peppermints (which he shared with me).

There was a special way Maniannan read stories to me. He read English stories in Tamil. He did a simultaneous translation as he read. I did not find anything remarkable about this and assumed that everybody could do it. Only much later I realized what a remarkable feat it was.

Usually Maniannan started reluctantly, but once he got into the story, he got carried away. He embellished the stories and adapted them to suit my preferences. I did not like unhappy endings and neither did he. He changed sad endings magically into glad ones. He also produced sound effects to accompany the stories and made me giggle. He showed pictures from the books and explained them in great detail. He let me ask questions in the middle of the story and after it had ended. He always had perfect answers which made me feel that all was well with the universe.

Maniannan got the books from the school library and also from a neighbor who worked at a book store. He read the standard children's classics such as Arabian Nights, Andersen, and Grimm. Later, Enid Blyton. Still later, Sexton Blake and other detective stories, but I did not like them as much. I made him read some of my favorite stories again and again.

It was a coincidence that Maniannan read me a Christmas story from a four-year old American children's magazine, just a week before Christmas, 1945. I don't remember the name of the magazine or the title of the story, but even now I can see the picture of the jolly old Santa with the elves helping him. I was deeply moved by the scene in which Santa leaves toys for the poor children in the orphanage.

Maniannan usually took care to emphasize that stories were just stories and there were no giants or ghosts in the real world. But he told me a lot of things about Santa Claus and said, "He's real, you know. If you are a good boy, he'll bring you some Christmas gifts."

I wanted to believe it, because I knew exactly what gift I wanted for Christmas.

* * *

The next day at school I told my friend Sankar about Santa Claus. Sankar looked dubious. The day after, he came to school with a satisfied look to report that there was no such person as Santa Claus. His uncle had categorically denied the existence of Santa, and his uncle knew everything.

So Santa Claus was just a story. I was disappointed. Maniannan had never told me a lie. Of course, he told me simple lies about having to study for a tough examination to avoid reading stories to me, but he would never lie about anything as important as Santa Claus.

When I confronted Maniannan with Sankar's report, he got annoyed. Then he shrugged it off and said, "Sankar's uncle is a Hindu and, of course, he does not know anything about Christmas."

I ventured to point out that we were Hindus too, but Maniannan explained that we were broad-minded Hindus.

Then he became strict. "You've got to make your choice: Either you believe me or you believe Sankar's uncle."

I wanted desperately to believe Maniannan, especially after he explained that Santa did not bring gifts to children who did not believe in him. I needed my gift. Ever since I heard about Santa, I had been dreaming about it.

Just to be sure, I asked Yesudoss about Santa Claus. I did not want Santa to think that I doubted him, but I wanted someone to confirm Maniannan's statements. After all, Yesudoss was a Christian and his family celebrated Christmas every year. He always wore new clothes after Christmas. Maybe they were from Santa.

When I asked Yesudoss about it, he claimed not to have heard about Santa. Maybe he was keeping it a secret from us non-Christians so we wouldn't get the benefits of Christianity without going to church every Sunday. I had frequently refused his invitations to visit his church because Sankar had told me that Vishnu would put out the eyes of any Hindu who even so much as sought shelter by the side of a church from rain. Maybe this was Yesudoss's way of getting back at me for refusing to visit his church.

That afternoon, Yesudoss checked with his Minister and gave me the official verdict on Santa Claus.

"There is no such thing as Santa Claus or the Christmas Grandfather. It's all a silly story invented by the RCs to fool small children into joining their church."

I did not know who the RCs were, but surely Yesudoss's Minister, a religious man, would not lie.

But Maniannan was adamant. He said, "Yesudoss is a Pentecost and you know they don't like anyone to be happy."

I did not know that, but I told Maniannan that of course I believed in Santa Claus. I said it in a loud voice so Santa could hear me clearly.

There was an obstinate glint in Maniannan's eyes. He read me the story again and all my doubts disappeared.

Later that evening, a new idea struck me. Father was reading the newspaper, and I stood by the open door of his room. He looked up and asked me, "What do you want?"

"Is Santa Claus real, Father?" I asked.

"Is that somebody in your history lessons?"


"Then why do you want to know? Has Mani been telling you useless stories again? Go back and read your lessons and don't waste your time asking silly questions."

I went back to our room. At least Father did not say there was no Santa Claus.

And I could not doubt Santa Claus because there were only three days to Christmas.

There was no school on the Christmas day, but other than that there was nothing special about that day. Even though we were broad-minded Hindus, we never celebrated Christmas. But every year, one of the people in Father's office, who was a Christian, brought us a piece of cake on the day after Christmas. Father sliced it into six pieces for everyone in the family (including a smaller piece for the cook). Grandmother never ate her piece because cakes had eggs in them. She saved her piece and gave it to me as I was her favorite. I often traded that piece with Maniannan for an extra story.

* * *

The next evening, a new fear gripped me.

"I don't know how to write in English. I can't learn fast enough to write a letter to Santa telling him what I want for Christmas like the orphan boy did in the story. And if I ask you to write my letter, Santa may think that the gift is for you. What can I do?" I lamented.

Maniannan thought I was silly.

"Of course, Santa can read any language, including Tamil. He is like the goddess Saraswathy. He knows all the languages on earth."

Reassured, I wrote a letter to Dear Santa in Tamil telling him I had been a good boy and to please give me a mouth organ for Christmas. I did not know how to spell "mouth organ" but I did not want Maniannan to find out what I wanted. So I used two different spellings and gave the letter to Maniannan who promised to mail it for me.

* * *

I went to school earlier than usual on the day before Christmas. I hurried to the Third Form classroom where, as usual, a group of big boys were listening to Kabali singing the latest pop hits. One of the boys was accompanying him by drumming on the desk top and Abdul was playing the mouth organ.

During the pause between one song and the next, I asked Abdul if I could see his mouth organ. "My uncle is giving me one for Christmas," I explained.

Abdul laughed, "You are not even a Christian!"

But he let me look at his mouth organ.

"Can you let me take it home this evening? I want to practice." I said.

Abdul wouldn't hear of that. But after I gave him my pencil--a half-length pencil which Father had given me the week before--he agreed to let me borrow the mouth organ during the lunch hour.

I was too excited to eat my lunch. I sat down under the tamarind tree and started playing the mouth organ. I was horrified when sounds came from it, but I could not make it sing like Abdul did. I tried different tactics. I held my hands just like I had seen Abdul do and kept opening and closing the fingers. I slid the mouth organ over my lips from one end to the other. I tried tilting my head in all directions. I could make sounds but not songs. I mentally recited the words of the song while blowing on the instrument, but that did not work either.

I asked Abdul to teach me how to play the mouth organ and he quickly explained the fatal flaws in my attempts.

"You have to be older than 12 to play the mouth organ. Even then, you have to practice for many years. And you have to have a special talent for music."

I knew immediately that I had made a bad choice in asking Santa for a mouth organ. I would have to wait five years before I could use it. I did not have have any special talent for music. I couldn't sing any song, not even the national anthem. How could I? Father never let us listen to the radio and even though I was seven years old, I had never seen a movie. I did not know what else I could have asked Santa Claus for, but the mouth organ was a horrible mistake.

Maniannan asked me why I was crying. I explained about my mistake in asking for a mouth organ. As always, he quickly reassured me.

"Don't worry. Santa Claus knows better. He knows what's a good gift for each child. He selects the most suitable gift. If he feels the gift you asked for is not suitable, he'll substitute something else. And I'm sure that he knows all about mouth organs."

* * *

Now I had other things to panic about. It was Christmas eve and I asked my brother to read me the story again.

"But we don't have any stockings and we don't have a fireplace to hang them by," I said. "How will Santa know where to leave our gifts?"

We had no stocking, socks, or shoes; we usually walked barefoot and wore sandals to the school.

Maniannan had the answer. Father wore shoes and he even had stockings from the days he had to go on inspection tours from his office. He stored all his old cloths in a steel trunk in the pantry.

We snuck into the pantry, opened Father's trunk and found a variety of rags. There were three old stockings and we took the two which had the smaller holes. Maniannan let me have the white one and he took the blue one for himself. He covered the small hole in my stocking with a piece of rag so that if Santa left me a small gift, it would not fall through. Then he wrote his name and mine on pieces of paper and put them inside the stockings so that Santa would know which one belonged to whom.

Instead of the fireplace, Maniannan suggested we should put our stockings near the kitchen stove. We waited until the cook had put out the fire for the night and sprinkled water on the embers. He was suspicious that we were going to steal some sugar and ghee. But Maniannan swore he would not touch any of the supplies and said that he merely wanted to conduct an experiment for his science class. The cook kept an eye on us as we placed the stockings near the stove and smoothed them out.

* * *

I could not sleep that night wondering about what Santa would bring me for Christmas. I no longer doubted there was a Santa Claus but worried he might give me the mouth organ after all. Or maybe he would leave me just a lump of coal, as Maniannan had explained the fate of naughty children, because I was not an especially good boy. Father had told me repeatedly that I did not obey him like a good son should.

Maniannan was not asleep either in the next mat, even though he had his eyes tightly closed. I asked him what he thought Santa would bring me. He told me to shut up and go to sleep. When I repeated my question, he whispered fiercely that if I didn't go to sleep Santa might think I didn't believe in him. Father shouted to Maniannan to stop talking and go to sleep.

The more I tried to sleep, the wider awake I felt. I was awake when Father turned off the light and went to his bed in the front room.

Maniannan stood up in the dark.

"Where are you going?" I whispered.

"Shut up and go to sleep," he whispered back. "I'm going to the bathroom and if you try to follow me, the snakes will get you."

I thought I heard Maniannan going to the kitchen. Perhaps he wanted to be sure our stockings were still there.

* * *

I did not know when I eventually fell asleep, but when I woke up, it was already daylight.

Maniannan said, "Father has gone to the market. Let's go check our stockings."

My heart leaped when I realized it was Christmas day. Maniannan and I ran to the kitchen. The fire was burning in the stove and for a frightened moment I thought the cook had burned our stockings. But I saw them lying on the floor, near the door. And I saw a lump in my stocking.

We picked up the stockings, ran out the back door,and stopped under the Mango tree. I put my hands inside my stocking and pulled out something wrapped in silver paper like you saw in cigarette packets, except this one was smooth and not crumpled up. Inside there was a match box, without matches. The cotton lining inside the box covered a circular piece of glass. I thought it was a jewel or diamond, but Maniannan exclaimed, "You know what it is? It's a magnifying glass!"

"It's the same thing Sexton Blake and Sherlock Holmes use to check for fingerprints and other clues." he explained.

That Christmas day was an exciting one. Maniannan showed me how to look at my thumb through the magnifying glass and see the ridges and whorls. We caught an ant and made it into a mythological monster through the magnifying glass. Maniannan held the glass to the sun and made a piece of paper catch fire. I spent the whole day peering into a new world through the magnifying glass.

I vaguely remember that Santa had left a book in Maniannan's stocking. I thought the book looked familiar, but Maniannan told me that it was brand new and it was exactly what he had wanted.

I was glad that Santa knew how to choose the most suitable gift for each boy!

Back to Short Stories