I’ve met only one chimney sweep in my life. It was when visiting my aunt’s old-fashioned house some years ago.
He wasn’t dressed in a flat cap and covered in soot. My aunt wasn’t Mary Poppins. When I told him I’d never met a chimney sweep before, he replied with a twinkle that touching one was meant to bring you good luck. I touched his arm.
Had I been a child I might have asked him if he knew the secret of how Santa Claus gets down the chimney lumbered with his sack of presents. Santa Claus is jelly-bowl fat and possibly has a permanently full bladder on account of the endless glasses of milk and cookies left out for him by grateful children when he does his rounds. He must be terribly frost-bitten. His “Ho! Ho! Ho!” as he goes is probably a cough, not a laugh.
I knew many Santa Clauses over the years in Jakarta, skinny as well as fat. Miserable as well as jolly. Playing Santa Claus in a shopping mall grotto in the runup to the holiday was a gig eagerly taken up by unemployable former EFL teachers and other expatriate down-and-outs. It paid around Rp1.5 million per day. These Santas worked shifts of four hours or longer and could meet 150 children each time.
Toleration of children was an obvious requirement for the part, while a cheery Rudolph-like red nose didn’t go amiss. And while a concealed hipflask of Mansion House rum could be trusted to take care of that, it didn’t help with some other requirements, like clean teeth and fresh breath. Some Santas meanwhile were unknowledgeable – let’s call that totally ignorant – about the latest trending toys, looking blankly at any child who asked for “Fingerlings” for Christmas.
Sitting awkwardly on the knobbly knees of one of these imposters, a child could easily lose his belief in Santa Claus, cutting short the magical years of his childhood. If so, all is not lost. Take that child outside early on Christmas morning, look up at the sky and point out Santa’s sleigh being pulled by reindeer back to the North Pole after delivering presents all night.
This slow-moving bright object (actually travelling at 27,000km/h) is in fact the International Space Station, its vast solar panels reflecting sunlight as it circles the earth every 90 minutes. The ISS is visible in the two hours before dawn and after sunset. Passes always start from a westerly direction. You can look up the exact observation details on the web. If your child doesn’t gape in wonderment at the subject of your fib, well, then he’s not a real child.
In the past, the standard Christmas present given to relatives who weren’t close was a few pairs of socks. Another one was a set of handkerchiefs. Or cufflinks and a tie. Or soap-on-a-rope and aftershave, either “Brut” or “Hai Karate.” Or even a gift voucher to be exchanged for goods (socks if you wished) once shops like Woolworth had re-opened after boxing day. I preferred to casually receive cash from visiting relatives (“Merry Christmas, Danny. Here’s a tenner. Go and buy yourself some socks”). I could accumulate enough money to buy items forbidden as gifts for teenagers, like booze and cigarettes.
I guess this year it won’t be socks but facemasks. Some places in the world will be under COVID-19 lockdown and Santa Claus will undoubtedly be affected. He may have to wear a hazmat suit, a red one with white fur trims and bells on it. He’ll certainly have to leave the presents on the doorstep rather than pop down the chimney with them.
In the UK, Christmas is traditionally associated with a cosy image of families sitting around the fireplace while snow gently falls outside. In Bali, a popular holiday retreat for many foreigners, the image is one of people sitting around the air conditioning unit while the rain outside pelts into the swimming pool. Christmas falls during the rainy season in Indonesia. One time I was in Bali, it rained constantly over the holiday. I imagined Santa Claus transforming his sleigh into something resembling a seaplane pulled by dolphins.
Rather than get wet, I stayed in my hotel room with a guitar and amused myself by re-writing some classic Christmas songs to suit the wet tropical location. These included:
Rudolph the Wet-Nosed Reindeer; I saw Mommy Towelling Santa Claus; I’ll be in a Boat for Christmas; Happy Xmas (Rain is Over); Splash! The Herald Angels Sing; Baby it’s Humid Outside; Let it Rain! Let it Rain! Let it Rain!
And what about our titular Christmas pudding? The British Christmas pudding is a steamed, fruit-filled, ball-shaped dessert which is set alight when served. It is the fruit equivalent of haggis. It is a black hole that has sucked all surrounding ingredients into it. It is stodgy and heavy, and if fired from a canon would put a hole clean through the wall rather than splatter against it. This has been scientifically tested.
A typical recipe includes heaps of mixed dried fruit, dark muscovado sugar, suet, chopped assorted nuts, nutmeg, cinnamon, whole cherries, sliced Bramley cooking apples, rum and stout. The most unexpected ingredient is a coin. A shiny silver sixpence used to be used and was meant to bring good luck to the person who found it, assuming they didn’t choke or break their teeth on it.
Should you want to give your Christmas pudding an Indonesian flavour, the easiest way is to add a large bottle of kecap manis, some blobs of durian, and some chopped chilli peppers. The only haram ingredients in the traditional recipe are rum and stout. These could be replaced with popular non-alcoholic drinks, like Pocari Sweat and Teh Botol. If you recoil from these changes, remember, this is a Christmas pudding. Anything goes. You could even put a Rp1,000 coin in it in place of a sixpence. Which just leaves me to say: