Our Airbnb host in Delhi, where we landed at 7am on Christmas Eve in the worst bit of travel planning since a heavily pregnant carpenter’s wife headed up to Bethlehem in late December without booking ahead, had the coveted “super host” rating and a “sparkling clean” badge, but I didn’t think telling that to my wife would stop her crying.
Now, my missus is not high maintenance, but, as she explained between sobs, she just needed to sleep. After a long and sleepless 18-hour journey from Dublin to Delhi via Helsinki with our three kids aged 13, 12, and 4 in tow, what was stopping her?
The fact the bed didn’t have a top sheet, just something that looked like a 1970s student wall drape stretched over the mattress and some furry synthetic blankets piled on top that were perfectly soft and warm (it’s cold in Delhi at night at this time of year), but, as I found it impossible to forget after Sasha pointed it out, were unlikely to have been washed.
Eventually, a wet stretchy drape was produced by our host from the washing machine, and repeatedly ironed which did almost completely dry it out. We made a kind of hygienic envelope, into which we posted Sasha to the land of nod.
I passed out with all my clothes on in another room next to my 4-year-old, Johnny (I had booked the place because it had four bedrooms) and five hours later, when we all woke up, his anguish at there being no bulging stocking at the end of his bed was tragic.
“Where is Santa?” he asked, outraged and aggrieved. “You said if I went to bed on Christmas Eve, Santa would come.”
I tried explaining the mysteries of jet travel, but my explanation that it was actually still Christmas Eve was met with despair.
“Is Christmas cancelled?” he asked pitifully.
My daughter, Elinor, 12, led the charge to rescue Noel. We were going, she said, to get a Christmas tree. I tried to explain that Delhi is less than 1 percent Christian and I wasn’t sure that was going to be so easy, but she shot back, “Everyone loves Christmas, Dad.”
Two hours later I found myself standing in the teeming Green Park Market, 700 rupees lighter, with a four-foot fake Christmas tree under my arm, and a bag containing baubles and fairy lights.
My daughter wasn’t entirely right, however. Christmas is not big here. I would estimate that for 95 percent of people in Delhi, Christmas this year was just, well, Tuesday. Shops, dentists and chai sellers were as open as ever, although some tuk-tuk drivers wore Santa hats and wished us a Merry Christmas.
Skipping Christmas hadn’t seemed like a bad idea when I booked tickets to Goa with a three-day Christmas layover in Delhi. But as the trip drew nearer, the kids became increasingly agitated at the prospect of missing out on the traditional festivities with their many cousins.
And although the existence of Santa has been marginal for many years for the older kids now, they both professed great anxiety about how and if Father Christmas would find them (or their little brother).
We headed back to the apartment and erected the Christmas tree, swathed it in lights, arranged the presents we had exported from Ireland under its polypropylene branches and put The Christmas Chronicles on Netflix. My daughter then produced from her suitcase mince pies (an Irish Christmas treat) and gingerbread biscuits she had smuggled all the way from home, laid them out by the electric fire and, heroically suspending all disbelief, wrote a letter to Santa.
Christmas Day itself had many noticeable differences to the usual experience, including a cook arriving to make us curry for breakfast and the easy availability of batteries. What was the same? A dawn start, the kids asking their new voice recognition speaker dumb questions and me being incapable of transforming a Transformer designed for 7-year-olds.
A friend had suggested booking a walking tour of Old Delhi with a street children’s charity, Salaam Balaak, and we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed into Old Delhi to meet the group.
The stats on homeless children in India make for desperate reading; up to two million kids are thought to be homeless (as my son observed, that’s half the entire population of Ireland) with at least 100,000 street children living and working on the streets of Delhi. Several thousand underage girls are forced into prostitution by brutal crime gangs in the city.
Salaam Balaak Trust (the name means ‘Welcome Children’) offers shelter and education to these otherwise forgotten kids—and the tours are led by former street kids. While they don’t shy away from the grim facts, the tours are also fascinating and fun-filled; our tour guides, Annie and Raghev gave us an extraordinary window into a side of the city few tourists ever see. For example, they showed us where the poor get their water, how to cross Delhi’s lawless roads (keep together in a big enough bunch and the cars have to stop) and one alleyway that had been used as an informal public toilet for decades, now cleaned up by the simple expedient of erecting numerous images of the Hindu gods; Ganesh, Krishna and Shiva, Annie informed us, were better at policing this alleyway than any CCTV.
Seeing my kids interacting with other kids their age—thumb wars, drawing pictures, and playing catch—at one of the charities contact points was a sobering experience.
Until you stand next to someone with nothing and actually hear their story, it’s easy to forget just how much we take for granted.
The tour finished in Old Delhi’s tumultuous orgy of materialism that is the Grand Bazaar, where thousands of unbelievably small shops sell an unfathomable multitude of items at marvelously flexible prices.
But, with the sun warming up the city, the smog building, and the sound of horns rising, it was beginning to feel a lot not like Christmas. And the FaceTiming hadn’t even started yet.
India is five and a half hours ahead of Ireland, and, luckily I still had one card up my sleeve. I really needed it to be an ace.
To be fair, Christmas lunch at the Leela Palace Hotel was unlikely to be anything other than that.
The Leela is a true institution in India; as one of the country’s few entirely Indian owned five star hotel chains, Leela hotels all over India have become synonymous with India’s extravagant wedding culture. The Leela Palace is its gleaming apogee, Bollywood meets Mar-a-Lago with a substantial topspin of Buckingham Palace.
Unlike everywhere else we had been in Delhi that day, there was no doubt that Christmas was really happening here. The forty-foot Christmas tree in the lobby made sure of that as did probably the most brilliant and original Christmas feature I have ever seen: a full size, fully edible gingerbread house. Was it really real? Well, my 4-year-old son Johnny had several bites of a wall fitting before we managed to haul him off, and he said it was delicious.
And also making it clear this was not just another Tuesday was the trays and trays of desserts laid out for inspection in the restaurant; marshmallow snowmen, chocolate ganache reindeer, individual fruit possets adorned with sugar stars and snowflakes and several more gingerbread houses (more modestly scaled than the one in the lobby).
After consuming far more than we should have, we embraced another Christmas tradition by going for the regulation post-prandial stroll. But rather than pulling on Wellington boots and striking out across muddy Irish fields, we took a taxi to the Agrasen ki Baoli, a vertiginous, 14th-century walk-in well which is one of the jewels of Indian architecture, and one of my favorite places in Delhi, which I was thrilled to be able to show my children.
By 9 p.m. we were back home, utterly exhausted and happily tucking the kids up in bed in our Airbnb—which, after a day spent experiencing both sides of this bewildering city, the brutally poor and the unfathomably wealthy, seemed absolutely perfect.
“Was Christmas OK?” I somewhat nervously asked Elinor.
“It was great Dad,” she said, “I’ll never forget it.”
A Delhi little Christmas?
Well, who would have thought it, but yes.