Back in the Fifties Fort Cochin went festive at the start of December, particularly Princess and Petercelie Streets, home to the Anglo-Indian community. The community is seen in their best element during Yuletide. Suits, usually black, are sent to the cleaners. Marriages and functions are also fixed for this time of the year and December is a month of merrymaking. Its Diaspora targets this time of the year to visit Cochin. Hulallahs or ‘Chinese Lanterns’ spring up in all houses, symbolising the star that guided the three wise men to the newborn baby Jesus. The shops add to the festive mood by decorating their premises with tinsel streamers, bulbs, Chinese Lanterns and Santa masks. There are dances to go to, old relationships are renewed and new ones initiated. A quaint custom called ‘Consata’, a tradition from the Portuguese era, was still carried out. Decorated trays laden with eatables are exchanged as a symbol of renewing bonds with blood relatives. For the housewives preparation for Christmas starts three months in advance when wine is made and bottled for maturing.
Ironically, the architecture of these streets is predominantly Dutch. Back in their homeland the Dutch built their homes keeping in mind the possibility of incursion from the sea — a threat that often turned real in some of the low-lying areas in Holland. The Dutch, no doubt felt that a similar threat from the sea was real in Fort Cochin. There is a famous Dutch story of a young boy, a folklore hero who saved his township from possible inundation. On his way to school he noticed a breach in the dyke separating the sea from his town, and water seeping through it. Realising the danger to his town, he showed great presence of mind and plugged it with his finger until help came and effected urgent repairs. The English slang term ‘putting a finger in the Dyke’ is believed to have its origin from this abiding Dutch story.
Our school headmaster explained it quite neatly when he said that the hypothesis behind such a building design was — “Even if the toothpaste is washed away the tooth is safe”.
Bunches of boys and girls serenaded the streets of the town with guitars singing Christmas carols and other popular English songs. I remember we were out carol singing once, singing a popular Cliff Richards number of the time called ‘Travelling Light’ and there was one of our lead singers Franklin smartly pointing to a glowing electric bulb overhead every time we got to the title of the song. Frankie had clean missed the point that in the context of the song ‘travelling light’ had nothing to do with illumination and that Cliff Richards was singing about the weight of his baggage on a visit to his lady love — ‘a pocket full of dreams and a heart full of love that weighed nothing at all’!