Christmas is the wrong target. It cannot pay for the sins of the church because Christmas has long flown the coop of Christianity. It’s a now consumer festival.
There’s a tweet going around these days from actor Ashwin Mushran that could be a Christmas card for current times.
“RT if you’ve celebrated Christmas for decades and never been ‘Converted’.”
That’s because somewhere in the middle of the fake snow, the dense plum cake and the poor guy sweating it out in the Santa suit at a mall, we are apparently in the middle of a war on Christmas. It’s more like skirmishes rather than a full-fledged war.
Some carol singers in Satna including a couple of priests and 30 seminarians were detained after the Bajrang Dal accused them of forced conversion. The police said the seminarians did not have permission to host any programme. Their car was set on fire.
The Hindu Jagran Manch in Aligarh warned Christian schools not to celebrate Christmas if Hindu students were in the majority in their schools. Apparently Hindu students can be lured to Christianity by Christmas gifts.
Even Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s wife was not spared. When she tweeted that she’d hosted a Christmas charity event, she was accused of having just made it simpler for the church to harvest souls.
To make everything stickier, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar wrote a letter exhorting Catholics to organise prayer services in their parishes and convents to defeat “nationalist forces” before the Gujarat elections. He reminded Christians that “Communist governments and dictators in a number of countries have been tumbled in the past through the protecting hand of our beloved Mother Mary” PM Narendra Modi even called it a “fatwa”.
By the way, do the Bajrang Dal (and BJP MLA and deshbhakt Pannalal Shakya) know that not only did Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma decide in an ‘unpatriotic’ move to have their wedding in Italy, far away from Hindustan, they went to a Santa Claus village during their honeymoon in Finland?
Even if all the charges against the church are true, even if the church is on a nefarious underhand mission to harvest souls, even if it is covering up paedophilia scandals and converting tribals en masse, Christmas is the wrong target. It cannot pay for the sins of the church because Christmas has long flown the coop of Christianity. It’s a now consumer festival rather than a Christian one for the vast majority of Indians. And whether the Jagran Manch likes it or not, a lot of Indians are already converts – to Christmas, not Christianity.
It has become an Indian festival, and none of our other festivals, our Holis and Diwalis and Eids, are any the worse for it. Is it a leftover from colonised mindsets – all this big fuss over sahib’s burra din? Absolutely. But in 70 years of independence, it’s gone native. The snow is fake but the spirit is real. We celebrate Christmas the way we tend to celebrate almost every other Indian festival – too much family, too much food and too much shopping at the mall.
American friends are always mystified that Indians stand in queues to buy Christmas plum cakes. They think of Christmas cake as the gag gift, the one to be re-gifted. We take selfies in Santa hats because it’s a Christmas thing to do, not a Christian thing. We drag little fake trees home and put twinkling fairy lights on them because it makes for a nice party prop. Some of us wake up on 26 December with a hangover. None of us wake up with a burning desire to rush to church and convert.
In the old Anglo-Indian quarter of Kolkata, Christmas has always meant a neighbourhood block party among the brick-red buildings – a decorated manger on the street, food stalls, local bands. But these days, tourists and general revellers seem to outnumber the residents. As one old lady in a flowery dress snapped at a television cameraperson: “No, I don’t want to talk about my Christmas cake recipe again. I am tired of being asked about it every year by you guys.”
The problem with the likes of the Hindu Jagran Manch is not that they do not want to celebrate Christmas, but that they do not want anyone else to celebrate it. If it was a campaign against consumerism, that would be one thing. If it was a campaign against the sheer aesthetic ridiculousness of those Santa hat selfies, even that would be understandable. But this is just sheer mean-spiritedness. They are the party poopers, not just for revellers, but for poor children who might get some gifts and warm clothes in the name of Christmas giving. To use a seasonally appropriate analogy, that’s being a dog in the manger. And what’s so Hindu about that?
The government has not helped matters either. It tried to shoehorn Good Governance Day on to Christmas in its very first year in power. There was an uproar about a mandatory essay competition on good governance. Then came the backpedalling and denial – it was an online competition, it was voluntary. The government’s own ministers flunked the Sushasan Divas Quiz to mark the birthday of Atal Behari Vajpayee on 25 December. “Google it” said BJP national spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy when asked where Vajpayee had won his first election. In the name of honouring Vajpayee, the Narendra Modi government just looked like the Grinch who was trying to steal Christmas.
That should have been lesson enough. But in 2017, the government decided to observe Digital India Day on Good Friday. Whether it was benign ignorance or a calculated snub depends on the eye of the beholder. No wonder the Jagran Manch-es are now thinking this is their time in the sun, and cannot resist the opportunity to flex some muscle and show minorities their place.
Meanwhile, in my hometown of Kolkata, little neighbourhood bakeries still fire up their ovens at this time, and rent them out by the hour to bake custom-made cakes for those who want that home-baked Christmas feeling. Most of those bakeries are Muslim. Pictures of Mecca hang on the walls. At Nahoum’s, the city’s only Jewish bakery, the line for Christmas cakes winds around the block. Jewish bakeries and Muslims bakers in a largely Hindu city coming together over Christmas cake. Nobody thinks twice about it.
Sure, it’s more capitalism at work here than anything else, but in these polarised times even half-baked secularism is better than no cake at all.
Sandip Roy is a novelist based in Kolkata.