It was over two decades ago but Indian expatriate Ruth Isaac still remembers the wonder of celebrating her first Christmas in Kuala Lumpur.
“Christmas is so much fun here. Shops and malls are decorated beautifully. It adds to the Yuletide spirit, especially with songs and carols being played in shopping complexes. However, it is a tad too commercial as decorations take centrestage in mid-November, over a month before Christmas,” says Ruth, 59, who has been living in Kuala Lumpur since 1995.
In Ruth’s family, decorations only go up on Christmas Eve and they are taken down on Jan 6, at the start of Epiphany. Also known as the Three Kings’ Day, Epiphany is celebrated by Christians in adoration of Jesus Christ.
“Our family observes the 12 days of Christmas, beginning on Dec 24 right up to Epiphany. It signifies the 12 days taken by the three wise men to travel to Bethlehem to visit Jesus Christ,” explains Ruth, who is from Bangalore, Karnataka.
In her hometown, Christmas preparations shift into high gear after the Advent season (the fourth Sunday before Christmas).
“Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It celebrates the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Christian families in Bangalore adhere to this custom strictly, where Christmas preparations are only in full swing after Advent. They include choir rehearsals, Christmas shopping and spring cleaning the house,” says the mother-of-two.
Ruth tries to incorporate many Bangalorean Christmas traditions into her celebrations here in KL. Since Christmas involves feasting on good food, she takes pride in the painstaking preparation of her sought-after fruit cakes and cookies.
“In Bangalore, Christians hardly buy tidbits or order cakes for Christmas. This is quite the opposite here where people prefer to order Christmas snacks and cookies. In our culture, everything is homemade and recipes carefully kept and passed down in families for that special season of good will – the birth of Jesus.”
Ruth’s prized fruit cake recipe is over 100 years old, handed down from her paternal grandmother. Dried fruits like raisins, cherries and orange peel, and nuts are chopped and soaked in a secret alcoholic concoction in January each year.
She usually bakes between 5kg and 11kg of cake, which are presented as gifts to her Malaysian friends.
Ruth adds it is a Bangalorean Christian tradition to serve odd number of items – be it cookies, snacks or the main course – during Christmas.
“Having an odd number of items signifies there is always extra for another person. It signifies abundance and generosity in the spirit of Christmas,” says Ruth who lives in Brickfields, KL.
Snacks include kalkals (small pieces of dough mixed with caraway seeds and sugar, fried in oil and coated with sugar), macaroons, masala peanuts, chakkulis (muruku), diamond cut biscuits (a sugary snack made from wheat flour and butter), chivda (a spicy snack mix with cornflakes, lentils, raisins and nuts) and sugee ladoo.
“Macaroons, diamond cut biscuits and kalkals are among the sweet treats introduced during colonial times. They have been passed down the generations and prepared each year especially during Christmas and other special events.”
The family’s homemade wine is also one of the treats thirsty revellers look forward to. Ruth, who learnt wine-making from her mother, serves the family specialty every Christmas to complement her cakes and cookies.
“Red grapes are bought in October and fermented for 21 days with other ingredients. People like to drink it to whet their appetite and also to enhance the flavour of food. It is also a tradition inherited from the colonial days. Homemade wine is sweeter, and inexpensive compared to the commercial wines. The best part is that we can easily gift it to family and friends,” says Ruth, who also makes wine using oranges, passion fruit and guava.
Ruth’s husband, Nehru Isaac observes that most Malaysians tend to purchase Christmas decorations off the rack, unlike his relatives who take pride in making festive ornaments.
“In Mangalore and Bangalore, every house is beautifully decorated with handmade paper star lanterns and other unique craft pieces. My daughters and I make our own decorations each year. This includes lanterns, poinsettias, candles and festive stars.”
Nehru has a wonderful time planning his Christmas decorating project with Ruth and their daughters, Ranita, 30, and Serita, 24. He views it as a time of bonding and fun with his family.
The family treasures their pieces of art and reuses them over the years.
“We still have a Christmas cracker made by Ranita when she was five years old. A wreath, made in the late 1990s, is displayed in our living room. We also have a few other ornaments from India, including a table runner from Odisha and homemade candles from Bangalore,” says the 62-year-old general manager and country manager of a civil engineering company in Selangor.
To add to the festive cheer, Christmas cards – collected over 10 years – are hung across the walls in their living room.
“Sadly, the practice of sending Christmas cards is slowly dying because of social media and e-greeting cards. Since these cards are a rarity, we have started collecting and displaying them during Christmas,” says Nehru.
To further jazz up their festive celebrations here, the Isaacs invite friends and Nehru’s colleagues over for a get-together dinner a few days before Christmas.
“It’s very sweet when our Malaysian friends participate in our function. This way, they are introduced to Bangalore’s rich Christmas traditions. They sing carols, sample our lovely cuisine and Ruth’s famous wine,” says Nehru, adding his youngest daughter participates in carolling sessions in church in KL.
Christmas Eve is more of a family event. After church service, the family gathers for dinner. Ruth prepares a Bangalorean spread, which includes roast chicken, salad, breads and a selection of desserts like fruit salad, caramel custard, plum pudding and homemade chocolates.
On Christmas Day, she dishes out traditional treats like neer dosa (crepe prepared using rice batter), toddy idli (steamed rice batter with toddy, raisins and cashew nuts), pork vindaloo and mutton curry.
“In Bangalore, we gather at my mother’s place on Christmas Eve. Everyone brings dessert, such as cakes, puddings and cakes. The following day, we gather in another relative’s house and the celebrations continue for many days. Adding to the fun is having carollers entertain us during the festive period. Goodies are also exchanged among loved ones,” says Ruth.
Although far away from home, the Isaacs are thankful to have their Malaysian friends by their side this Christmas.
“We love Christmas in Malaysia. The decorations are out of this world, the carols and songs at all the shopping centres are a constant reminder that Christmas is fast approaching, We look forward to the food, open houses, church service, and exchange of goodies. It has given us the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and also learn different customs and food traditions in KL,” adds Ruth.