Troubled, Sean wakened to the darkness of an early West Bengali morning. Three days to Christmas and nothing, absolutely nothing appeared Christmassy – no snow, no evergreens, no family, and no Christmas baking. Could Ciera bake on a two-burner kerosene hotplate? Christmas shopping...where do you shop in a little village of mud huts with tile roofs?
Ciera put her arm over Sean’s shoulder. “Feeling down then, my love? Christmas seems a mite…empty, doesn’t it then?” she whispered into his ear.
“So right, lass, but isn’t it grand we have each other?”
Evening darkness encroached that last day of classes before the holiday, when the stranger knocked on the classroom door. “The gentleman wants to speak with you Brother,” Mela, announced.” Students at the medical center 200 km. north of Calcutta where he and Ciera were teaching English as an alternate Language referred to them as Brother or Sister. With Mela translating, Sean learned the stranger had traveled by train from Calcutta to deliver this box – now resting at his feet – sent by their children back in Canada.
Final Christmas greetings exchanged with students, it was now time to dig deeper into the mysterious box. A fruit cake, shortbread, chocolates, jars of jams, canned spiced ham, crackers, tins of hot chocolate mix, and powered milk – goodies they hadn’t tasted since leaving home – all the result of communications between their son in Toronto with an East Indian friend who had a sister living in Calcutta whose employee was commissioned to purchase the goods and deliver the box personally. Ciera’s eyes shone with tears. “Isn’t it something then, to think our children can be reaching us with wonderful Christmas things across all those miles? She reached up to embrace Sean.
Later that evening – Ciera wrapped in a blanket in front of a tiny open fireplace Sean fed with small branches and dry banana leaves – a knock came on the door. “Brother, Sister may we come in?” Buruti and Aruti Das, the sisters who taught school at the church mission entered timidly. Sean and Ciera rose to greet them with the appropriate “Namaste”, Sean rolled out a straw mat on which all four could sit in front of the anemic fire. Ciera rose to busy herself at the hotplate.
“Would you come with us to our home for Christmas?” Buruti, the older of the sisters, asked. Sean smiled and looked over to Ciera. The silent, visual communication between them expressed their concern about the housing situation to which they were being invited.
“But would your family be having room for us all, do you think?” Sean questioned hesitantly.
“Yes, our home near Calcutta is large,” Aruti spoke. She and Buruti were happy to practice their new ability with English.
“Would there be a telephone we could call Canada in your village?” Ciera asked while stirring hot chocolate mix into four mismatched mugs.
“No,” Buruti responded, “But in Calcutta.”
A nod to Sean indicated Ciera was ready to accept the invitation.
The sisters stretched out on the bench-like seats of the train and slept. Sean and Ciera, holding hands, watched the Bengali countryside slip by. “Isn’t it exciting then?” Ciera voiced, quietly snuggling a little closer to Sean. “Isn’t it grand to think it’s much warmer in Calcutta and we can talk to our children on Christmas Day?
“Would you be a mite concerned about tonight’s accommodations?” Sean whispered.
It was anything but lonely at the Das’ large home. The family, celebrating Christmas with sunrise church service and hosting villagers to afternoon cake and treats, introduced Sean and Ciera proudly to all as their teachers and Canadian friends.
But by mid-afternoon, it was time for Ciera and Sean to be excused to catch the train back to Calcutta. They would seek accommodations at the Church of India Guest House and call their children. Christmas evening in Calcutta would be Christmas morning in Toronto.
Emerging from the crowded Howrah station in Calcutta, they walked to the nearby bus stop. Not having an address for the Guest House, they relied on the bus driver. Tropical darkness shrouded the bus when the driver motioned them to the front. “Guest House just up the street.”
They emerged onto the dark street crowded with jostling, partying people. Firecrackers popped and flared into the sky. Groups attached arm in arm moved about singing. Confused, Ciera and Sean stood at the intersection of four streets. “Which one would you be thinking is the one to go up?” Ciera questioned anxiously clinging to Sean.
“A mite puzzled meself but let’s be trying this one.” Their efforts to seek directions were frustrated by language; their noses were tantalized by foods cooking in small braziers and their ears were bombarded by the cacophony of a foreign language and loud music.
Sean stopped to draw Ciera close to him. “Have you been praying then?” he shouted into her ear.
“All the way now, don’t you suppose?”
“Good.” He looked up and scanned the street ahead. Squinting into the darkness, he asked, “Wouldn’t that be a church spire I see ahead?”
Having registered for a room and been given directions to an international telephone, Father Larry asked, “Where are you having supper?”
“At the hotel.” Ciera’s impish smile compelling.
“Settle in, make your call, and please join me at the rectory for supper. I’m all alone.”
What a Christmas feast – turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, cranberry sauce, an array of vegetables, and of course Christmas pudding!
“We’ll be thanking you, Father Larry. Our Christmas has been full of so many grand surprises – this wonderful supper being one.” Ciera touched her lips with her napkin and folded it carefully by her plate.
Father Larry reached out to clasp the hand of each guest. Christmas is all about surprises. Think of the teen-aged Mary, told she was about to conceive a baby having never had sex with a man.” Father Larry chuckled. Think of those few shepherds surprised by a choir of angels. Think about Mary and Joseph receiving dignified, eastern statesmen offering outlandish gifts. Christmas began with surprises. The best surprise of that first Christmas was how much God loves us, wholeheartedly and continually.”