The year I got my best Christmas gifts ever I also realized there was no Santa Claus. At our middle class Hindu household in Calcutta, there never supposed to be a Santa Claus. But I'd still decorate a spindly Christmas tree with fluffy lumps of cotton wool torn from my mother's first aid kit.
In Bengali, Christmas is called Bada Din, or Big Day. And every Big Day there would be one wrapped toy or book at the foot of the bed when I woke up. We didn't have a chimney or a fireplace in sweltering Calcutta. But Santa Claus could apparently sneak in up the drainpipe like a cat burglar.
The year my aunt came visiting from London, I woke up to a pile of gifts — toys, books, Belgian chocolates, and the realization that Santa Claus had come on British Airways, not the reindeer sled they kept singing about on the radio.
In Calcutta, our radio station had a limited and rather dated selection of Christmas chestnuts. And come November, though the autumn nights were still warm, we'd be hearing endless winter wonderland songs about white Christmases and silver bells. I'd never seen a snowman, never eaten a chestnut and had only the faintest idea what a manger was, but for two months I couldn't escape them. Long before it became elevator music in America, I was Christmas-music-phobic.
America reinforced that. I remember my first Christmas in California when I knew no one and stood on an empty thoroughfare of shuttered stores waiting for a bus running on limited holiday schedule. I piled in with a handful of other rejects and bag ladies and headed to the one diner I knew was open on Christmas day. The cheery piped holly-jolly carols and the spray painted Santa Claus on the windows was a stinging reminder of my Alone-in-America status.
Since then I have made friends, found chosen families. I've had my picture postcard Christmas — a stocking hung by the fire, opening presents while snow fluttered down on the pine trees outside. And I've learned the Christmas ritual of concealing my disappointment if the sweater was something I wouldn't be caught dead in.
I know now that the delight of the day is really in the unwrapping, in the discarded wrapping paper lying like the sloughed off skins of Christmas around me. I can see myself this year curled up on a couch, stuffed from Christmas ham, the music of Antony and the Johnsons wafting across the room or perhaps it's You've Stolen My Heart from Asha Bhosle and the Kronos Quartet. I see the dog sprawled at my feet, her snout twitching from dreams of running through fields of leftovers while I doze off over my new novel.
Perhaps this year it will be Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Or Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Either way, I guess it will be a thing of beauty. And in such small ways I will be perfectly content with my Bada Din.