The tree that decorates many living rooms at Christmas is the coniferous Araucaria. The European Christmas tree, Araucaria cookii, is a recent introduction in Goa. Until then, we made do with the false pine from Australia, Casuarina equisetifolia, which is a xerophyte rather than a conifer. Both these trees are not common in Palestine, where the first Christmas occurred in Bethlehem that is now in the Israeli occupied West Bank of the River Jordan. Mary and Joseph, originally from Nazareth, landed in a cowshed at Bethlehem travelling for a citizens’ register being prepared by Cesar Augustus, the Roman emperor of that era. These trees only add confusion to the origin of Jesus Christ, who was finally executed outside the gates of one of the most disputed towns in the world, Jerusalem, for the biggest crime of all: telling the truth!
Consider the Epiphyllum that we know as the Brahma-kamal and the Europeans call the Jerusalem flower but is actually from the Amazon basin in South America. It is known as a lily or kamal but is actually a cactus, with the leaves reduced to thorns and the stem modified due to photosynthesis. Similarly, the Christmas cactus or Shlumbergera species is a native of coastal Brazil that grows quite well and bears flowers in Goa.
Christmas is a time we associate with holly and mistletoe. The typical holly leaves are a part of Christmas decorations, wreaths and cards. Holly does not grow in Goa and there is no true mistletoe, either. The parasitic plant, Viscum alba or Bhendul, that grows on the branches of mango trees serves as a mistletoe alternative for decorations. The leaves of the mangrove plant Ilex acantifolia resembles the holly, but rare is the person who will wade through the muck to collect its twigs for decoration.
Our elders had a simple way of getting us involved in agriculture and keep us connected to the ‘Goemchi tambddi mati’ that gives us life and sustenance. We were encouraged to make a scaled-down model of the countryside through the crib and to remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. A visit to Israel in November 2018, helped me understand the climate of that region better. It actually rains in Bethlehem from November to February and the grass is green on the hillsides this time of the year. So the mock fields we did with rice, wheat or finger millet (nachini or ragi) sprouts were not out of character for the nativity scene.
What I know of plants today is largely due to my apprenticeship with my father who grew rice, coconuts, coffee, mangoes and a large number of other fruits due to the economic blockade of Goa, then an overseas colony of Portugal, in 1954-61. I have shared the skills with students across Goa especially those at Sulcorna, where I was the resident ‘guru’ for a little over a year. Vrundan and Priyanka Parab who learnt with me at the College of Agriculture in Sulcorna, are now teaching students of Sharada Higher Secondary School, Pernem. Other home-grown agriculture graduates like Akshay Parab and Aaron Andrade are now teaching in schools. May our tribe increase and lead to a green Goa. Merry Christmas, and have a green New Year.