The real Christmas tree

Santa would come. I was certain; I was 36, and I still believed Santa would come and I would get a glimpse of him. Crazy? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t think I was crazy.

I had insisted that we set up a real Christmas tree instead of the artificial one with lights that we used to put up. And that’s when the fight began. But in the end, I won the argument after conceding that it would be just for this year and this year alone.

But the way my family looked at me as I stayed awake on Christmas Eve and revelled in the joy of finding gifts at the foot of the tree the next morning, ones that I had placed myself, for my wife and 2 kids gave me the clear message that I was crazy. So be it.   I had valid reasons to be crazy!


As far as I can recall, it all began when I was a child of seven years, the age when you begin to understand where you’ve come from and where you are going; your advantageous position in the family as an only child.  Often I would use my single child status to my advantage, but there were other times when I found the overbearing display of affection overwhelming.

I am digressing. It was the beginning of the Christmas week, and for me, the most exciting time of the year. You know what added to the excitement? My dad was down from Dubai. He would come once in two years at Christmas time and I loved it.  He was so full of energy and fun, that I loved being around him. And of course every time he came, he would bring chocolates and presents. Oh! What fun it was; I also loved watching Mum covertly, the quiet affectionate disciplinarian she was – maybe I loved her more maybe because of it, I still don’t know –  as she watched us wistfully from the doorway of our 2 bedroom second floor rundown apartment as Dad and I planned the setting up of our Christmas tree.  It was the first time I would be a part of the Christmas tree committee! Earlier, I was kept out as I was considered too small.

With Dad in town and it being Christmas week there were several visitors, mainly my Dad’s brothers and sisters and my cousins trouping in and out of the house. It was a ritual that was enacted whenever Dad was in town.  I enjoyed my cousins’ company and missed them when they didn’t come over during the rest of the year for a variety of reasons, some of which I am just beginning to understand.

The family get together every alternate Christmas, was like a fiesta. I enjoyed every moment of it. But it was the time I also became aware of the tension in my Mum. It was not very visible on her face, except occasionally, but would often spill over into arguments when Dad and Mum were alone. Often about expenses, and the additional work involved in entertaining guests that would stop over, only because dad was in town. But I guess that’s how the cookie crumbles everywhere.

But the Christmas spirit overcame everything I guess. It was time to set up the Christmas tree; with Dad in town, my older cousins were around to help and often there were shouts of where’s this, where’s that amid the constant chatter of my mum; “Don’t dirty the floor now, take out all the debris; if you dirty it, you have to clean it up. It was so exciting for me especially, and my cousins too, to be a part of this chaos; young as we were, we enjoyed ferrying stuff they wanted from where they told us it would be.. We felt we were in the thick of it…

But I do recall that I was a wee bit disappointed, when I compared the real tree we had set up  with our neighbours trees, all lit up at night, their houses even.  I could see them from our balcony. They shimmered and flashed and looked so inviting for Santa.

Maybe I was too young, but I decided I would ask Santa, not for the tricycle I saw my friends use, but the gift of a new big Christmas tree with lights – just like the neighbours!  I decided to ask Dad first. He would know if it was the right thing to ask Santa. He knew everything I thought.

Not only that; also because he was the one who went out into the small plot of vacant land in the neighbourhood armed with a scythe and brought it home, on his shoulder. When I told Dad that I would ask Santa for a new big Christmas tree just like the neighbours, he said knowingly, Aaron, he won’t bring that kind of a tree; those are artificial trees, and Santa loves real trees”.

But what about those in their houses I asked plaintively. Dad replied, “Santa did not bring those trees, they are from the local market and Santa may skip their house on the way, but he won’t skip ours, because he loves real trees; you ask him for a toy;” Then can I ask him for a tricycle Dad?”, I said disappointed. “Not this time Aaron. He must be already on his way. It’s ok even if you don’t ask him anything. He knows what you want, and he will bring something for you for sure. He will not skip our house, because we have a real Christmas tree”.  How do you know Dad?

He told me? So you have seen him Dad? I asked curiously. Mum says the real Santa Claus remains invisible to children because the children will trouble him if they see him. Your mum is right son, he does, but two years ago we had this real tree remember? And he stayed a wee bit longer admiring it, and I caught him just as he was leaving. What did he say Dad? He said, I shouldn’t have stayed this long, but I love real Christmas trees and I miss them when I’m travelling. But now I’m visible, I better move on and he disappeared.

I believed him. I always did. He was my hero. He knew what Santa loved. And I was sure that that night Santa would come tonight too and I would see him. Because we had a real Christmas tree!.

We lived on the 2nd floor of a small two bedroom apartment that over looked a side street. The building was rather run down, but my parents then had no immediate plans to change it. They couldn’t afford to do it;  that much I had gathered from eavesdropping on conversations’ between mum and Dad.

On that Christmas Eve though my cousins and their parents stayed over and I knew there would be no arguments, so no tension – My Dad and Mum would be on their best behaviour! But I was not about to be. I wanted to see Santa and nothing in the world would stop me from doing that. I believed that he was invisible to children only because they slept through his visit which was very fleeting and light of foot.  Today I was determined to stay awake. I was certain he would come, and it would be more than the fleeting visit he normally made, because we had a real tree and I would see him, because we had a real Christmas tree, not those fancy artificial ones in the neighbourhood.

Since they was limited space in the house, it was decided that we children would sleep in the hall near the Christmas tree. But this decision it appeared had been taken after a lot of debate between our parents. Their concern? How would Santa stay invisible as he left his gifts? They decided that the best way for that to happen was to put us kids to sleep early, even as they partied on into the night!  So an early Christmas done, followed by kisses and hugs and a light dinner – the feast was slated for the next day – we were herded off to sleep. But did we want to go to sleep? Not at all. They screamed and when that didn’t work, they cajoled and threatened us with informing Santa that we were misbehaving and switched off the light in the living room.

 Our Christmas tree had no lights, so it was close to pitch dark, save a  sliver from under the bedroom door as they continued to party inside – quietly. An hour later they came to check on us, using a torch. My cousins had fallen asleep. I was tired from the days excitement and the strenuous game of gully cricket, my cousins and I had played, but lay still with eyes closed, but wide awake as the they shone the torch light on my face.  I was the one they worried about, the one who could potentially be a whistle blower, if I found out that Santa was not invisible.   

When they left the room, I quickly opened my eyes, and looked around. It took a while to adjust to low visibility. But I knew Santa had not yet come – there were no gifts under the tree, and besides I had been awake the whole time…. I couldn’t see the clock, and though I was told that Santa comes at Midnight, I didn’t think it possible; with so many houses to visit – is it possible I thought? I might have to stay awake the whole night was the last thought I had before I fell asleep, driven it seems by some unseen force.

I don’t know what time it was, when I fell asleep, but I woke up with a start. I thought I heard a sound.  A thud sort of. Santa? It was pitch dark, the bedroom lights were off and there were no lights on the Christmas tree. The curtains were drawn, but not fully and the flash of the neighbours coloured Christmas lights snaked through the gaps.  

I looked back at the Christmas tree – and there were gifts for all of us under the tree, their wrapping paper glinting the flash of the neighbours Christmas lights.  Santa had come and gone. I cursed myself, for falling asleep and missing his visit. But wait. What was that sound I heard? That thud? Followed by another I thought, but then it became faint when I woke up. Was it a dream, was it real? I didn’t know. On an impulse I ran to the window and looked outside. 

And there was Santa sitting majestically in his reindeer chariot; I could see the reindeer straining to go. It seemed that the chariot was floating on clouds; He was all he was made out to be – Roly Poly and with a white flowing beard; others, adults must have seen him several times to copy his avatar down to a T I thought.

 Just then Santa looked up. Our eyes met but only for brief second. But it was enough for me. His were blue, piercing and I don’t know why – I just felt a deep love sweep all over me. It was the greatest moment of my life. One that remains deeply etched in my memory.    

I was excited and was about to wake up everyone and drag them to the window to see Santa, when in a whoosh of snow that blinded me, he moved off, and all I could see was the dark dreary dirty road that we had played cricket on earlier that day.

5 years later

Once he left, and there was nothing left to see, I went and quietly lay down in my place and for some strange reason, despite the excitement of actually seeing Santa, I fell asleep. I never told anyone about seeing Santa. For one,  they would not believe me and another, I wanted it to be my secret. I thought I would see him again the next year – I had insisted that my Mum find a way to put up a real Christmas tree, as Dad was not around, and I did stay awake at least upto midnight or a little thereafter when I fell asleep. He must have paid a fleeting visit, because I found my gift under the tree. But I never saw Santa again.

The following year I recall, Dad, when he came from Dubai, was very excited. He had brought both a new Christmas tree and Christmas lights and was very proud about it. But I did not allow him to set it up. Despite all the trees in the vacant plot being cut down to make way for Christmas was the most exciting time of the year for me I insisted he find a tree and bring it home. I gave him his own argument. Santa loves real Christmas trees. Finally he swallowed his pride, and made me tag along as he went to an acquaintance’s house to bring a real Christmas tree.  I did not even allow him to use the Christmas Lights he had bought with much sacrifice I gathered, but relented after he told me that Santa is getting old and he needs the lights to see!

Of course, Dad never knew the real reason for my insistence. But that year, I stayed awake throughout the night and waited for Santa. And I saw him. It was my Dad dressed up as Santa who I saw placing the gifts under the tree! I could make out from his walk and his eyes that flashed as he turned away from the Christmas tree. They were not the same eyes that looked into mine that night 5 years ago.

That day my whole world came crashing down.  My belief in my dad especially. He lied to me. And I was angry. Angry as hell. But for some reason or the other, the moment these angry thoughts hit me, the vision of Santa looking up at me from down below killed them all. It was definitely real. It cannot have been anything else. And my anger evaporated. I now knew who Santa was. But did I really? I still believed he would come. After all we had a real Christmas tree didn’t we? And so I insisted that every year we set up a real Christmas tree. 

But my relationship with my parents changed.  I would always double down on whatever my parents told me. After all they lied to me once, didn’t they? And too about Santa.

2 years later

I recall that as I started school, in the neighbourhood school, which was pretty upmarket (I didn’t know it then of course) but had the advantage of proximity, which is critical in a big city, I found that my being  a single child constrained my ability to make friends, to share, to collaborate, and sometimes even cooperate. I was labelled by my teachers as an introvert. And my mum was concerned. I did not have many friends and was considered a loner – it was school and back and back to school again. Who’s your best friend in school mum would ask after the teachers told her all about my asocial behaviour at school at PTA meets, and I would say no one. All are my friends. That’s what I told myself even when it was not true.  This continued through all of my first four years of schooling and possibly only got worse as I got older. But my academic grades, gave me an upper hand and possibly a stiff upper lip.

But it was in the second Standard, when I was all of seven years old, that I began to overcome these constraints. Possibly with the help of repeated advice and reasoned logic imbued from my mum and teachers, the principal even, in a limited way and learnt how to effectively manage both school and home in different ways, and I was now rather adept at it which thrilled my mum no end. I could make out from the way she spoke to me, the compliments I got, when I told her that I shared my favourite cutlets with a classmate or gave my extra pencil to my bench mate, because he had not brought his. But as I look back I don’t think it was Mums approval that motivated me. Maybe it was inherent?  Nah I don’t think so. But there seemed a co-incidence. It was the year that I saw Santa.

School, is that never ending chore that needed to be done. Enjoyable if you think it’s enjoyable.  Over the years, the school had grown on me and now in the 10th standard, I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Christmas time – there were friends, few not many, lots to do, and things to achieve.  Which I did, most of the time. There were disappointments and pressure from teachers and peers, but I coped as best as I could. And when I couldn’t, or felt the pressure I relied on Santa. Santa I would say, come on come over and help me out. And he would, quietly and invisibly. And in my mind’s eye I could feel his presence, his piercing blue eyes looking into mine, telling me things will be fine.

But, maturity has its pitfalls too. As I grew older and more aware of the differences in gender, income, lifestyles and beliefs, I realised that I was somewhere on the middle of the social totem pole. Often I would be left out of gang trips to the nearest sweet shop on the opposite road, trips to the local fair and sleepovers I only heard about, maybe because of my introverted attitude or more likely, my social status, which perhaps fell below the expectation of the sleep over gang.

But this clarity of vision allowed me to see that I had classmates that were below me on the totem pole too and my self-pity would vanish when I saw their circumstances, which they bore with fortitude and a smile. Arun and Andrew, were from a different neighbourhood, but seemed to find it difficult to bring a full meal in the noon and what little they had brought they had cooked themselves. I knew this because we often ate together and I would share my favourites with them Often I would find that they didn’t have a text book, or their homework incomplete, because of their finances and their part time work after school at a neighbour’s bungalow and we were good friends. The three of us formed our own gang and we are friends to this day. Another classmate, Anusuya, a tall petite girl for her age, already filled out, and her friend Aruna who seemed to prefer to join our gang rather than her all girl gang that seemed above me on the status ladder. We didn’t have sleep overs and stuff, but we were good friends, but with limited knowledge of each other’s personal lives.

I was getting ready to go to school one morning in the week leading up to Christmas – the gang had planned a treat – we would share what we could from our pocket money, with Anusuya and Aruna putting in the balance – they offered to do so – when mum received a phone call. It was unusual for Dad to call so early, but then he was getting ready to travel back home.

She said hi David, screamed and dropped the phone. I was on the way to the kitchen carrying my empty breakfast plate.  I dropped it and ran to her. What happened? What Happened? I asked. She was crying. What Happened Mum Tell me I said. She couldn’t protect me. She said Dad has died in Dubai.  My whole world came crashing down, just as when I saw him place the gifts under the Christmas tree. Was it a lie? No it must be real. And it was.

The next ten days, till his body arrived were a blur. Mum and I were devastated, but we pulled through with the constant stream of visitors and relatives, many of whom stayed over.  I often turned to my vision of Santa and implored him to bring Dad back for Christmas. But there was no answer. My friends were my only source of comfort.

Dad’s funeral was held on Christmas Eve. That day I fought with mum. It was a fierce fight. I insisted on a Christmas tree, a real Christmas tree, without the lights – I never told her why. Finally she agreed. The gang went over to Anusuya’s house – it was a big one with a huge compound a little distance away from our apartment – and cut a branch of  a tree brought it over and set it up. I stayed away.  There were angry looks all around, but I didn’t care. All I knew was Santa would bring Dad back on his sled.  Funeral over, we returned home.  I stayed awake the whole night. Santa never came, there were no gifts under the tree. Neither did Santa bring Dad back. It seemed to me that Santa had abandoned me and I cried inconsolably.

One year later.

It was a difficult year, finances had dried up.  I was now in the 10th standard. Loans had piled up, some of which mum didn’t know about apparently. She began to share her doubts and pain with me. Dad was no longer around and I had in her eyes, to take on the mantle.  If things continued like this I would have to discontinue my studies and work she said. I found this very hard to digest. I loved school and I knew by then that I had it in me to make it big. Mum herself had tried to find a suitable job, but with her lack of professional skills, other than her culinary skills, she found one hard to come by.  But she did take a few small orders here and there and had gradually built up a small list of satisfied customers. I stayed home and helped her out when required. But it was not enough. There was too much debt piled up and all our relatives had abandoned us.

By the time Christmas approached we were getting disheartened. It was going to be an empty Christmas without Dad! We had never once, not put up a Christmas tree and this year, I was faced with a dilemma. Should I put up a tree? Should I not? Why should I? Santa had abandoned me totally hasn’t he?  But as Christmas approached, something deep inside kept insisting I should not break the tradition. I again approached Anusuya and the gang for help and this time I helped set it up in our living room.   

At School, things were changing, Christmas was evolving from Carols and cake to Christmas celebrations with a Secret Santa, a game in which everyone gets to play Santa, but secretly. I loved Santa, and playing him, even secretly was a fantasy I had indulged in before. But could I afford to? Given my domestic situation. I was glad when the teacher announced that the upper limit for gifts would be Rs: 100. But to my dismay, I got to play Santa to, of all people in my class, Anusuya. She was my friend and I liked her a lot, and maybe, just maybe, I also had a wee crush on her, but what gift could I possibly give her? She seemed to have everything.  Over and above I could not afford even Rs: 50, let alone 100.

I was in a bind. I decided to bluff my way through. In any case it would be anonymous and it couldn’t be that she received no gift. The teacher would investigate and put two and two together. That would not do.. I found an empty pen box, and some old but still sparkling wrapping paper at home. I wrote a small chit – “This box is full of love. Santa Claus”, wrapped the box, ribboned it, took it school put her name on it and dropped it into the sealed box. 

On Christmas Eve,  during the last period of the class, the box was opened and everyone scrambled to get their gifts from the box – The teacher gave strict instructions – the gifts were not to be opened in the class. I was relieved. My gift was neatly wrapped and ribboned and my name was neatly written across it. The handwriting looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out who it was.  I took it home and opened it…it was a beautiful pen, a parker that must have cost more than 100 Rs: And then I realised whose handwriting it was  – Anusuya’s. I cried.

I was moping and feeling guilty… when the doorbell rang, Mum opened it and it was Anusuya. Normally she was accompanied by Anshu, and had come home only once before, during my dad’s funeral, but this time she was alone. She must have found out, I thought, how I don’t know, it was supposed to be secret.  

After pleasantries, Mum left us alone and went into the kitchen… Anusuya said,  “Aaron I have an empty box, that seems full – it is heavy. I know it’s you who was my secret Santa. I just came to say thank you”.

I couldn’t stop the tears. They were in free flow. She put her hand on my hand and held it till I stopped crying. Mum heard me sobbing, and came out of the kitchen.

She sat down in the chair opposite and waited for me to stop crying. Didn’t say a word. And then she asked Anusuya what happened, worried that we may have had a tiff. Anusuya explained.  She also said that she understood our circumstances and spoken to her parents and they were looking to see how they could help. Really? I looked again at the Christmas tree behind Anusuya and saw Santa. Really saw him.