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Winter Picnics around Christmas

Please let it not rain tomorrow, not even a drizzle.” My recurrent annual prayer on Christmas eve during the late 80s to the early 90s, more precisely my pre-teen years. In India, where I lived, winter felt far from harsh and more a season of good seasonal food and fun. The biggest highlight, of course, was the wonder of winter picnics.

amusement park

Picnics on or around Christmas were such a sensation that its account cannot endure the slightest sidetracking due to the indiscretion of an absent-minded narrator, who has since traveled to places around the world where picnics are an experience of a different kind – more summer and sandwiches.

Sometimes waking up to a glum rainy morning on Christmas day was not unusual. One of the years, the rains almost got the picnic canceled. Eventually, on reaching the location, much to the horror of the group’s younger members, the shuttle corks and duce balls were found soaking wet in the duffle bags tied to the roof of the van. In an age without internet and gaming devices, an overreaction was justified. We played till sundown. Matches after matches of Badminton and Cricket continued till the last mat was rolled, trash bags disposed of, and someone turned on the dusty minivan ignition with a roar.

A few days leading up to the big day, the family get-togethers bustled with discussions about finalizing the event’s budgets. Sometimes conversations about finalizing food menus ran for an entire weekend night with endless rounds of coffee and cigarettes, interspersed with a few hands of rummy. Children were huddled up and tucked away under fresh-smelling, neatly folded blankets – unflinchingly pulled out from the closets by the gracious hosts of the family sleepovers.

The children slept to the chatter’s faint sounds from the smoky room where the parents engaged in emphatic discussions about the upcoming annual family extravaganza. “Not a single vehicle is available for hire for the next five days; the potato prices are soaring; we overshot the budget already; total plunder out there.” Tidbits of such conversations remain disparately lying scattered on the floor of the mind only to be picked up years later during a bout of nostalgic reminiscence.

Decisions needed to be made, and fast.

The mighty enthusiasts were always chipping in with some extra commitments at those final hours of planning and arrangements. They were the true custodians of this yearly convention. The journey to and from the picnic location was part of the festivity. The event began right when you heard the pickup van honking at your doorstep on the cold foggy morning—a party of four to five families. Sometimes we had a few friends from extended circles, and the more strangers meant more gossips and murmurs. During the ride, children were handed out food boxes with iced buns, boiled eggs, and fruits for breakfast. A typical 80’s breakfast before cereal boxes began to fill the food cupboards. The breakfast on the move was a clever scheme to get the junior crowd under control before hunger got the better of them. The slightly older teen crowd needed a bit more revival from their disconsolate brooding over the pointlessness of this annual rigmarole. The allurement of exciting games and prizes or the possibility of some idle romance, stolen kisses did prompt some glimmer of excitement sometimes, perhaps. For some, just the appeal of an outing in the countryside and eating outdoors caused enough excitement to linger in their nostalgia for a very long time, much to their surprise. The adults remained mostly preoccupied with food and drinks. Noisy fallouts were common between group members who were fervent supporters of rival football clubs or melancholic outbursts of some distant male relative who tagged along with one of the families for being recently rendered single and on the same pretext binged over the entire drink supplies.

Picnic menus were standard, but the recipes and cooking styles became much a matter of indulgence that would later get regaled for days at the house parties solely organized to celebrate the event’s success. The leaders of the picnic were always the husbands. With a lot of assistance from the hired day helpers, the men showed off their culinary skills to the wives, fixing an exotic cocktail from time to time, playing harmonica, or reciting poems. Practically nobody watched over the kids. The group’s women preferred to spend the day strolling to nearby places following the trails in the woods. They walked through the wet grass drenched in dew, sometimes stepping into a pool of sunshine, piercing through the morning fog, their faces gleaming with freshness, the cold creams shinning on well-cared skins, and a hard to hide sparkle in some of their eyes at the possibility of a fulfilling day of great gossip.

As the day progressed, the winter sun warmed up the grounds, the nearby woods. The trees’ dry leaves picked up on the north winds’ momentum and rustled in a gentle melody for the rest of the day. The amateur photographer with the only camera in the group wasted no time to capture the blueness of the sky in the backdrop, a rare sight for city dwellers.

A few group members made a reconnaissance trip to the selected location before the picnic’s actual day. Sometimes, if it was quite a distance, merely a group member’s testimonial was sufficient to finalize the site. A picturesque countryside was the usual choice of location. Avoiding crowds and therefore avoiding more popular destinations was the overriding criteria during the selection process. Suggesting unique places often earned one some guaranteed appreciation and attention during the after-parties.

After an action-filled day of leisure, one of the post-lunch activities was the much anticipated and yet much dreaded vocal musical recital by one of the group’s ladies. Every year the group helplessly volunteered for this ritual affliction, almost surrendering in a physical state of immobility from a day of ludicrous gluttony. Some members, the younger ones, managed to slip out just in time to watch the sunset from a nearby hilltop or simply walk the trail that ended in a neighboring village.

The minivan ride back home was an extension of the day’s last few planned activities – usually a quiz with the dullest prizes. I once got a pocket dictionary for being able to name the capital of Peru. Detailed sketches of this annual event persisted in the family conversations until the end of the season. In the familiar ordinariness of an annual unchanging event lies the excitement of a generation who in later years left for distant places around the world in search of newer lives and newer mundanities. The longing often reflects in the undiminished enthusiasm for a picnic, even though in a different place, far from the countryside that used to remain capsuled in winter fog and wafts of freshly cooked meals on the makeshift fire. A remarkably commonplace of traditions, and yet a picnic is a seasonal routine that offers the most immersed and unique engagement with the natural world, wherever you are.

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Author: Staff Contributor
Illustration/Photograhy: TDLM Design Team


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