Rosewater and Spices: The Magic of Christmas Past…

Dedicated to my mother Yvonne Patel nee Stanley

and my grandmother Isabelle Stanley nee Monteiro

The tropical Christmases of my childhood were decorated with holly and tinsel and scented with rosewater and spices. The tall Christmas tree was outshone by a magnificent Nativity Scene –  Bethlehem  in all its glory (flashing with coloured lights) and complete with stable, angels, shepherds, wise men and a glowing star. My grandmother curated the day and my mother added her own unique touches – flowers sprayed in gold paint, a Christmas fairy on top of the tree, the latest Christmas albums, children ready to perform in a concert after lunch.

Christmas Eve was the taste of brandied cake, bejewelled with glace fruit, and the sweet sharpness of sherry (Harvey’s Bristol Cream) sipped from my mother’s glass after Midnight Mass. We listened for sleigh bells (all tucked up together in a feather bed) and fell asleep to the chirrup of cicak (geckoes) scampering on the wooden ceiling.

Christmas Day was the golden fragrance of pineapple tarts, the taste of roast turkey or goose stuffed with chestnuts, a flaming plum pudding laced with brandy butter. We sang along with Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves. Cousins and uncles strummed on guitars and ukuleles, Christmas crackers were pulled and my grandmother, perfectly dressed, presided over a huge table groaning with fine china and delicious food.

The women who created the magic of my early Christmases are both gone but I think of them every year. I wrap my presents to the velvety voice of Harry Belafonte and the memory of my mother singing Mary’s Boy Child (the song that became a hit in the year of her marriage). I place a Christmas fairy on top of the tree (just like the one that she brought back from England). I whip up my grandmother’s brandy butter and this year, for the first time, I bake her traditional Christmas cake.  

I chop the fruit in tiny dice. I soak it in French brandy. I measure cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves (the spices of my Eurasian heritage).  I beat butter and sugar and a dozen egg yolks (remembering the thirty eight eggs that went into her massive mixing bowl).

My grandmother and my mother are here in my small kitchen which is filled with the smell of a huge one from a lifetime ago. That beloved kitchen is no longer there but today I breathe in the magic of Christmas past— a mixture of rosewater, spices and pure childish joy…

© Anita Patel, 2020

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