As a little girl, Christmas meant winter holidays, woollen sweaters and thick slices of plum cake dipped in bowls of my mother’s custard. As I grew older, it meant shiny dresses, cramped toes in stilettoes, and lots of dancing in stodgy Kolkata clubs. Obviously, a lot changed over the years, except for two things – Plum cake and Santa Claus. And both carry their own baggage of contradictions.
As per tradition, the dense rich cake was eaten on Christmas eve to line the stomach in anticipation of the feast the next day. It combines the contrasting elements of denial and abstinence for weeks leading up to the festival, with the excess and overindulgence of the celebrations that followed. The cake is both sweet and bitter. Its recipe has changed a fair bit, but the one that is familiar, baked for generations in old Kolkata bakeries is packed with broken cashew nuts, dates, swollen raisins, bits of candied fruit, ginger, spices, sugar and loaded with rum. Every bite fills us with a deep sense of pleasure, but every bite also carries the weight of guilt. Just like Santa.
Although Mr Claus does not climb down my imaginary chimney anymore, his presence is everywhere. He smiles on greeting cards, on Netflix-recommended movies, and on shop windows selling toasters. He dangles from green plastic trees lined up on the side of the road, and his signature red felt cap is bought by cars that pause briefly, and roll down their windows at the traffic signals. He cannot be ignored. There is a bit of magic in his story, that appeals to all of us. He belongs to a fantasy land, filled with wonder, playfulness and absurdity. It is easy to love a jolly old man, especially if he brings gifts. But there is a catch – his generosity comes with conditions. Before handing them out, he asks, “Have you been naughty or nice?”
How do we even begin to objectively answer that? Santa Claus has been given the tedious task of judging our moral worth. Be good, and you will be rewarded. Most of us try. But I am not sure that counts.
Conformity is usually good for society. It is an evolutionary trait, to survive. We follow the rules, say thank you, adjust and agree. We obey the unsaid laws that govern eight billion of us. It would be chaos if we all did what our hearts desired. Yet, I sometimes wonder, do we give up too much to belong?
In our hearts and the silence of the night, we like to think of ourselves as unique, each one of us is different from everyone else. And yet as the sun rises, we wake up to an alarm, shower, eat and leave for work. We nod politely, say the right things, and do things the right way. We often look at others to tell us how to think, or behave. We read the papers and mouth opinions, we look at Instagram posts and decide our next holiday, we pay taxes, have kids, wear what’s trending, and listen to the top ten songs. No harm perhaps in all this. It gives us a sense of belonging. Acceptance makes lives easier. There is no trophy for being an outcast. And yet… how do you feel about your everyday life?
Do you like the work you do, the people you spend most of the day with? Do you do things that make you happy, even if it makes others sad? Do you wear what you really want to wear, eat what you really want to eat? Do you get to decide who you want to be?
Being nice usually means being kind, making sensible choices, being acceptable and fitting in. But sometimes it also hides who we truly are. Being naughty can also mean baring our teeth, being honest and listening to our inner voice, even if it does not meet with societal expectations. These are choices that are more intuitive and more heartfelt. I am not sure what Mr Claus feels about it. I was told his list is quite simple, divided into two columns – good and bad. For us, its mostly in between.
There cannot be easy answers to simple questions. Naughty or nice, don’t choose a side. Sometimes it is better to let go, and eat a fat slice of cake instead. With a cup of hot steaming tea.
Ekta Kumar is a chartered accountant and holds an MBA from IIM Calcutta.