Think of Christmas, and you think of roast turkey, honey baked ham, mistletoe, baubles and star spangled Christmas trees, strains of we wish you a Merry Christmas belting from recorded CDs, and Orchard Road light-up.
Christmas in Singapore in the 1950s was a far cry from the above. The majority of the people in that era were still struggling to eke out a living. People still lived in kampongs with thatched or zinc roofs and wooden platforms or pre-war houses with halls partitioned into rooms to maximise rental returns for the land-lord. Christmas and what it entails was far from the thoughts of these people as their main concerns were bread and butter issues.
On the political front, there was the Maria Hertoh Riots in 1950, the clamour for independence from British Colonial rule in the mid- fifties, the Hock Lee Bus riots and the increasing tension between the socialist democrats and the communist.
As a child of eight, I was too young to understand the social economic upheavals of that era. My understanding of Christmas was from stories my sister and I read from story books – the birth of Jesus in a stable, the visit from the shepherds and wise-men and the angels singing Silent Night.
My Mother’s understanding of religion was a mishmash of Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. So our understanding of the Christmas story was gleaned from the books we read. Like most housewives of that era, Mother was more concerned about putting food on the table then celebrating Christmas. Father was away at sea most of the time, so my sister and I decided to celebrate Christmas our way.
“We shall create our own Christmas Pageant”, my sister who is two years older said.
I recalled having seen figurines of the holy family – Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus displayed at a shop window on my way home from school. The next day which was Christmas Eve we emptied our savings from our porcelain piggy bank and counted the coins. With the meagre pocket money we set off for the shop. The shop keeper must have been amused and sympathetic on seeing our pathetic coins. The figurines were sold to us at a bargain price.
That night, in our one bedroom home, my sister and I recreated the birth of Jesus. We used and overturned crate as platform and spread Mother’s tea cloth over it. The figurines were lovingly placed – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus on a manger with cows and sheep in attendance. Mother offered to let us have her spare candles reserved for times when the electricity failed and we had to depend on this make-shift light. The glow from the candle flame illuminated the face of baby Jesus, radiated that of Mary and Joseph and sent flickering shadows on the wall. The awesome sight compelled us to break into singing and how we sang with child-like vigour:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head
The stars in the bright sky look down for above
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
Mother must have been moved at our child-like depiction of Christmas. That night, while we were asleep, she wrapped a present for each of us and hung them on the window grill. Lo and behold, the next morning we were presently surprised and delighted when Mother told us that Santa Clause was touched by our singing and decided to pay us a visit by leaving presents for us.
In today’s day and age of high technology, fast pace living, instant gratification laced with a dollop of scepticism, I recall with a smile the night, when child-like simplicity and wonder recreated the magic of Christmas my sister and I shared – once upon a time.