In a year like no other, stunted by the ravages of COVID, many have welcomed the Christmas season to lighten spirits. Some have started by re-focussing on Christ, the reason for the season, and church, or by extending a gesture of kindness. Others have gone the ways of doing slow drive-bys, taking in the bedazzling Christmas lights around the Savannah, beautifully decorated houses along the highway, in their area or at creches at various churches. Playing Christmas music, painting and decorating have also been high on the list to achieve that Christmas feeling and inner peace despite circumstances.
There are some people, though, who have a special knack for extending that joy and festive spirit to others, even in such a time as this. When it comes to Christmas, count on Vidya Rampersad and Malisa Manocha to deliver a heart-warming experience.
VIDYA RAMPERSAD...MRS SANTA
When you walk into Vidya Rampersad’s Christmas shop in Arouca, you feel like you’ve walked into a charming little antique shop in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie. With surprises at every turn, it is easy to imagine opening up a vintage-looking jewelry box and being transported into a beautiful adventure. The antique-styled tea sets and cake stands, gingerbread houses, elves, snow owls, figurines and trinkets bring back memories of the old-time days.
The homely shop is filled with the aroma of their Yankee candles collection. In the background, nostalgic Christmas songs and parang kindle the festive atmosphere, as do the complimentary refreshments. Fondly called Mrs Claus, Rampersad has been bringing the enchantment to customers for close to ten years. She has lit up the faces of many others for even longer.
Her love for Christmas led her to start a Christmas corner at her family’s hardware 25 years ago which did not quite get off the ground. Unwavering in her vision, around 2010, she set about to re-launch with help from her daughter and her daughter’s good friend. Since then, she has gifted a self-decorated tree and “exciting” presents to Children’s Homes every year, including Homes in El Dorado and Sangre Grande. She even hosts a little tea party every season for friends and customers at her shop.
“I have ladies who come in depressed and leave here refreshed,” she told the Sunday Guardian.
“I’ve had screams of excitement and almost every imaginable reaction of joy when they walk in. Their positive feedback has always been my main source of inspiration.”
Rampersad has a special taste for unique treasures and gifts that possess that wow factor. She insists on adding her personal touch and offers decorating advice which often leads others to open up to her.
She was sceptical about opening this year, but with increased requests from clients for her items and decorating input even in a pandemic, she started seeing them by appointment. People have been eager for something to look forward to and have been beautifying their homes early since they are spending more time indoors, she said.
Recalling how happy and appreciative she was when a male customer from the West brought his wife the next day after stumbling upon her shop, she said people from other areas in the country are ecstatic when they discover her little place.
Rampersad said despite the hard work at times, making others happy brings her satisfaction. She especially loves to see men fumble to choose a secret present for their significant other and often rescues them with her suggestions.
At her annual tea party treat, Rampersad is sure to have a little parang group and she serves her special rum punch.
“Sometimes we have about 100 ladies here. They sit and relax, drop all their worries and have such a good time, but this year with COVID we couldn’t have it,” she said.
Her surprise packages of whole pineapple upside down cakes were also a hit when she distributed to others, as she also loves to bake.
Apart from her customers, her other inspiration comes from her six grandchildren who insist that: “Gramma gives better gifts than Santa.”
The mother of four, who has been married for 43 years, said she prides herself on creating a most delightful Christmas experience for others, especially children, as she grew up in Tacarigua with parents who ensured that the season was always special for her and her siblings despite their modest means.
“My dad and mum came from very humble beginnings and worked tirelessly for the support of our family. My dad was born in Lopinot and grew up in Arima, so parang and Christmas were in his blood.
“I can reminisce on the smell of balloons blown up, our simple yet beautiful Christmas tree embellished with the few ornaments we had, freshly painted walls, new curtains being hung. My siblings and I would be up by 5 am to see what Santa had left in our pillowcases we had placed at the foot of our beds the night before.”
She recalled that every year her father would buy Christmas presents and treats for customers of their small shop. She distributed hampers of various items from her shop recently.
“Even though my mother died in December some years ago, I still celebrate. She would have wanted that,” Rampersad said.
Sending Christmas and New Year wishes to all, Rampersad said Christmas not only unified her family but also taught them to care for others and to give back.
MALISA MANOCHA, the 'Queen of Christmas Décor'
Decorator and store owner, Malisa Manocha takes Christmas décor to another level. Her quirky, inventive ideas and clever ability to capture the most unconventional vision of her clients have won her rave reviews and many look forward to her winning creations to make their Yuletide season complete.
A favourite this year, has been her ornate Peppermint Tree which she originally designed for a seven-year-old boy. With its giant candy canes and peppermint swirls, marshmallow garlands, sugar-coated ball, cupcake, ice-cream sandwich and gingerbread ornaments, ladders with climbing elves, elf bottoms diving into the tree, right down to its peppermint print ribbon, children and adults alike visiting her store have been awed by the piece. Enamoured with the theme, one customer shelled out the dough for a Peppermint Tree design with all accessories.
“The Peppermint Tree is trending most because it’s very whimsical and exciting,” Manocha told the Sunday Guardian, adding that customers are usually “wide-eyed” and “excited” on seeing her creations.
“I’ve had customers who volunteered their service to work at the store because they just love each item and they want to be there to see them every day.
“The candy and cupcake ornaments look so realistic that some kids want to eat them, even some of the adults, mainly the guys,” she laughed.
Dubbed the “Queen of Christmas Décor,” Manocha, who decorated the sets of CNC3 News and the Morning Brew programme two years ago, helps clients create a personal Christmas theme for their home or business space like staircases and fireplace scenes that are truly magical. She has designed for clients in Moka, Trincity, Couva, Gulf View and just about any place in Trinidad.
“People are fascinated when they see the pieces that I use on various trees; not necessarily ornaments, but a Christmas table-top figurine, like a large standing Santa, a set of carollers, giant gift boxes etc. This gives them ideas on how to make their tree look spectacular and unique.”
Describing her Swan Tree as “regal” and “breathtaking”, Manocha said they used glass ornaments, crystals, large poinsettias, jewel-encrusted gift boxes and ribbon, butterflies and doves in champagne, silver, white, gold and ivory. She said the tree was also a favourite as they used neutral, elegant tones which blend in with any home décor.
Mature folks went the more traditional route, choosing trees consisting of red, green and gold, embellished with poinsettias, sprays, butterflies, ribbon, beaded ball and glass ornaments.
Although Manocha had to suspend all decorating services at homes and businesses this year because of the pandemic, she gave in to customers who insisted that she create their vision in-store. Transporting the finished pieces to their homes presented some challenges, but in the spirit of the season, she went the extra mile to please people.
Manocha felt that with closed borders due to COVID, people were re-allocating their savings from vacation to Christmas. Even while speaking to the Sunday Guardian she had to juggle people seeking her creative insight.
To mark her store’s fifth anniversary and also her birthday, Manocha went all out on November 28 with an over-the-top customised cake by the owner of Wacko Jacko Studio, Jacqueline Ramoutarsingh. Titled “the Nutcracker,” the three-tier bejewelled fruitcake was decorated in white and silver with gold and black accents and was displayed with three smaller cakes, amidst a splendid Christmas tree and fireplace scene which she designed.
The San Fernando wife and mother of two said she always loved Christmas growing up and often volunteered to decorate for friends, family and her children’s school. Recalling how her business expanded over the years, she said she started out selling products she had bought from a store which had a closing down sale to family and friends. A family member then offered her free space in his store to sell her remaining items. Pleasantly surprised that some trees she had decorated in her little space were loved by people who purchased them and then she landed two “huge” jobs, she asked her husband to take her on one of his business trips abroad where she purchased some more Christmas stock. Within two months, she outgrew the space and ended up renting a place of her own.
“Now I am earning an income doing what I enjoy…Christmas definitely makes people happy and I have lots of customers who told me this especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. Some even said their Christmas trees have been up since September and will not be taken down until after Carnival.”
Manocha loves spreading Christmas joy.