“Alright children calm down! I know you all are excited to decorate the Christmas tree, but if you rush out of your line, then you don’t get a chance. Remember that.”
The matron of St. Xavier’s Orphanage is sitting on a high chair next to me and allowing each child to come and string an ornament on me wherever she tells them.
Me? I am a Christmas tree. Though I’m an artificial one, I’m proud of myself. Tall, fluffy, lush green and totally adorable. Yet I would say that I live the strangest life anyone could ever imagine. Thousands wouldn’t have even thought of it.
As each kid comes forward to embellish me with big or small colourful trimmings, it makes me laugh and cry, happy and sad, in equal measure, at the same time. Paradoxically, all year long I’m wrapped in an old dusty, smelly gunny sack and dumped in the farthest corner of the godown. But what pampering I receive as soon as December sets in!
Four peons had come to lift me up and brought me out of the silent, dark room. The strict matron, Sister Nancy stood on their head when they were taking me out of my dirty confinement.
“Be careful. Not a single branch should break.
“So then very carefully, part by part I was taken out, because I was dismantled at the time of storing away.
Huh! I saw broad sunlight almost after a year! Though I’m an artificial tree, but after being stuffed in for eleven months, it felt like now I could breathe.
Sometimes I wish I’d been a real one. But I guess the orphanage can’t afford to spend money on a Christmas tree every year. So they have to make do with me.
“First assemble it in the right way and next using the hose pipe clean it thoroughly.”
Wow! So then I receive my annual bath. Sounds funny, isn’t it? Anyway, later I was left in the compound to dry for one whole day. I pity the watchman.
He had to keep his eyes glued on me for the fear that the kids don’t run around and topple me over.
And finally here I stand all decked up. Little James is the youngest child in the orphanage, he’s only five years old. Whilst he hangs his ornament on me, very slowly he asks the matron,
“Will Santa Claus come to visit us?”
My heart weeps for him. He and I came in this orphanage in the same year, two Christmases ago, he was only three. I have heard he was found crying on a bench in a park and a gentleman brought him here.
Sister Nancy, pats his cheeks roughly and says,”
Yes darling and I also have some good news for you.”
“Really? What is it?”
“Surprise! Wait and watch.”
Another child, Tina eyes Sister Nancy fearfully and asks,”Aren’t we putting any gifts under the tree?””No smarty. Some families are coming to celebrate the festival with us and I guess they might bring some presents along.”
There is a constant flow of visitors during Christmas to the orphanage; more than at any other time of the year. Families, church and solo travellers flock to see and spend time with these kids.
Orphanage; not a very happy place. Although I love children, yet I don’t wish to see them in this organisation, which is as good as a prison. Yes it is a confinement, exactly like my dusty, stinking gunny sack. Kids need a home and parents, where they can have roofs of security and walls of love. And this place is far from it. Here people are paid to look after them and sadly all are not compassionate enough.
Just like I get to see the sunshine once in a year, these cutie pies also bloom only annually, since they are treated well only because the outside world is coming to spend time with them. It goes without saying, that if a good word spreads around, only then will the orphanage get hefty donations. Unfortunately it isn’t spent on the children. It mysteriously disappears in other secret pockets. But if these boys and girls are lucky, then this is the time when a few of them find loving families.
Sister Nancy stands up from her chair and looks around sternly before making her announcement,
“Now open your ears and listen carefully, I don’t want to see a single child flickering near the Christmas tree. If I catch anyone touching it, you’ll be locked in the dark room and no dinner. Is that clear?”
I gasp inwardly. Does she even know the meaning of Christmas? And she’s supposed to be a nun! I huff and brew over the fact that I’m nothing but a glorified put on show.
My pet, little James shivers and goes to hide behind Tina. She’s double his age. She pats his back and whispers,
“Don’t worry. Just be with me and don’t go near the tree.”
It’s Christmas Eve and the room is otherwise in darkness. The glow is coming only from the serial lights shining on me. It’s after midnight and I can see my darling James standing by the entrance of the boy’s dormitory and looking at me keenly. He’s so tiny and vulnerable. Wish I could talk to him and console him. Tina comes from the girl’s section and wordlessly goes and crouches in front of him. She whispers,
He wipes the tears from his eyes and sniffs.
Tina puts a finger on her lips.
“I want to go and hug the Christmas tree.”
Ohh my baby!
Tina franticly peers around. She beckons him to keep quiet, holds his hand and slowly walks him towards me. They come close and now he’s smiling brightly. He glances at Tina once and then puts his arms around me. They don’t even reach me halfway, but I’m completely enveloped in his warmth and love. He closes his eyes and smiles more. I’m praying hard they don’t get caught. But that was wishful thinking! Sister Nancy is standing in the corner glaring at them with hands on her hips.
Both the kids literally squirm with fear under her angry scrutiny. She hooks her index finger, gesturing them to come to her. James is already hiding behind Tina and the girl had to actually pull him along as he refused to move forward. Sister Nancy doesn’t utter a word. She points out to the girl’s section and motions Tina to go. Tina hesitates, but she dare disobey. Sister Nancy grips James by the wrist and marches inside.
Jesus knows what kind of Christmas we are going to witness tomorrow.
* * * * *
The noisy hustle bustle tells me that everyone is busy getting ready to welcome the visitors. Kids are bathed, neatly combed hair and in good, clean, clothes. Even their faces are powdered. I hear a boy John tell his friend Sam,
“Thank God it’s Christmas. I couldn’t bear the smell of my dirty shirt and my own muddy skin.”
“Don’t get used to this luxury. You know it’s temporary and we’ll have to remove it before evening.”
“Yeah yeah I know. But I’m also excited about all the cakes we’ll get to eat.”
Sam pats his back.”Yes. But the gifts aren’t coming to us.”
John pulls a scowl and mutters,”That’s so unfair! They bring it for us.”Sam smirks before adding,
“Yes unfair, just like a lot of other things. I’m only waiting to turn 18 and then I’ll get out of here.”
John grips his hand and whispers,”Take me along, we’ll run away together.””Sure. But it’s our secret. Don’t go singing about it.”
If these kids are getting this kind of manipulation, is it a surprise to the way I’m treated? I sigh and ponder,”At least they are not living on the streets or turned into juveniles.” Howbeit this is only a consolation, it still doesn’t excuse the people of the orphanage from the sin they are committing.
The place is spic and span as well. Mattresses have new bedsheets and windows are flurrying new curtains. Carols are in the air and some perfume whiffs in everyone’s nostrils. Wistfully, it is all only a day’s glitter and glory. From tomorrow it will be the same old stinking dungeon.
All the children are hurdled in the dining area and after their minimal breakfast, are given a warning in an aggressive tone.”If any smart cookie tries to babble anything in front of the visitors, then today will be your last day here before you are thrown out on the road. We’ll only be happy to do it. One less to look after. Understand?!?”
It’s Christmas, but there’s absolutely no spirit of joy or excitement on anybody’s face. Her warning is giving out a wrong message, totally against the objective of this festival.
Ten o’clock the gates are opened and a steady stream of people keep pouring in and out. They take a tour of the place, talk and play with the kids and also distribute chocolates and gifts. I can see Sister Nancy standing in the corner flexing her fingers in suppressed eagerness. She is waiting to snatch the presents from the kids. I can see she’s finding it very difficult to keep her eyes, tone and hands in check in front of the outsiders. I’m sure the fake smile is hurting her mouth by now.
At least the smiles on the kids faces are for real, the stars of the day, although it is short lived. They deserve much more than this. I’m treated like a celebrity too as people gather around me and pose to click pictures. My friend Santa is lazily sauntering with his big belly, spreading more smiles.
Finally as the day comes to an end and the crowd is thinning out, I see a young couple sitting in the corner and have my little James in their lap. The man ruffles his curly hair and James is giggling to what he must have told him.Sister Nancy goes up to them and says,”Please come and sign a few papers and then you can take him home.”
Fabulous!! So that was the surprise for my darling toddler. James’ eyes pop out and he peers at the couple. He asks them doubtfully,”Are you going to be my new mom/dad?”The lady kisses his crown and smiles with tears in her eyes.”Yes honey. Will you let us be?”The gentle, loving tone and that question gives me the assurance that my baby is going in safe hands. I want to dance with joy. James gives her a cursory nod and swings his arms around her.
Plenty of hugs, smiles, cries and goodbyes take rounds before he happily leaves with the couple. James hugs me and Tina for a while longer and whispers to me,”You are my luckiest Christmas Tree. Thank you.”
As soon as they leave, a dong alerts everyone. It’s the arrival of a new member. The peon comes in with a crying girl in his arms. Oh My God! She’s hardly a year old. Why are they given birth, if people don’t know their value? But I guess pleasures and responsibilities are two different things entirely.
So that’s the end of the festive day. As for me? I’ll be around till new year and then back to my dusty gunny sack, dumped in the messy corner, until I’m needed again next Christmas.