From pork vindaloo, Hindi carols to banana trees for Christmas trees — not much can beat the ambiance of a desi Christmas. There are also some slightly bizarre traditions like choke-slamming an old man effigy and then burning it — a family stole this Goan New Year tradition, but you get the idea.
What’s really ironic is that the birth anniversary of a Middle Eastern messiah is almost always associated with White, Western signifiers. When you think of Christmas, you picture Santa Claus, in all his rotund glory, a sparkly Christmas tree, red stockings stuffed with gifts, and maybe some cake.
This is surprising because Christmas is celebrated with as much aplomb in India as any other festival and yet, the distinct ‘foreignness’ of the festival has still not waned. But really, you don’t get more desi than one does on Christmas.
And I mean, away from the baubles that most multinational conglomerates sell you in the name of Christmas spirit. On the days leading up to 25 December, several nooks and crannies across the country light up in anticipation. The Anglo-Indian Bow Barracks neighbourhood in Kolkata, the Cochin carnival in Kerala, the Mother Mary shrine in the tiny hamlet Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu, Bandra’s Hill Road, and Borivali’s IC Colony neighbourhoods in Mumbai — there are distinct markers of Christmas all over India.
— Derek O'Brien | ডেরেক ও'ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) December 23, 2015
Every family, including people of all faith, has its own tradition and practices for this festive time. And this is drawn from the syncretic tradition of Christmas, in which elements of Christianity and pagan symbols find a seamless blend. The traditions of putting up a tree, stockings, mistletoe, and even gift-giving, are decidedly pagan practices.
Therefore, in this sense, nobody has an absolute claim to the festival, and Indians have made it their own in many unique ways.
There is nothing more Indian than banana trees, at least in South India. And since it is practically impossible to get fig or pine trees down there, several people decorate banana and mango trees in the days leading up to Christmas. It may not fit the ideal Hollywood image of a Christmas tree, but it definitely fits the desi idea. What are we Indians if not jugaadu.
Speaking of jugaad, a family recycles traditions! Delhi-based lawyer Jennifer’s family, for instance, burns an effigy every Christmas to signal the end of the year, and to vent their frustrations for the year gone by I’m sure — a tradition that could really find some takers in 2020.
But what I truly found strange was when our church priest thought a live tableau of the nativity scene (birth of Jesus) would lend authenticity to the Christmas midnight mass. Far from authenticity, it was just weird to have three actual people, including a baby, crouching inside a makeshift stable. At least the animals were fake.
Another prevalent practice, which is really indicative of the confluence of traditions, is Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s Christmas ritual involving the lighting of an earthen lamp to signal the arrival of Jesus, who, according to Christian scriptures, was the ‘light of the world’.
Season of gluttony
Talking about Christmas without mentioning the food is truly blasphemous.
Every Christmas feast is distinct, and is determined by the region and even the sect of Christianity one belongs to — and it involves much more than just boozy plum cakes. There is a massive misconception that Christians form a single entity, when less than 2 per cent of Indian Christians are actually made up of several different sects.
Most ‘Indian’ festivals involve community celebrations — sharing of meals, praying together, putting up decorations. Christmas is no different, but it is food that is truly the focal point of community practice.
In Goa, a Christmas dinner will usually consist of pork or chicken roast, the traditional vindaloo, pulao, and wine, which is often brewed at home. But what is most precious is the gathering of families to make pre-Christmas snacks, especially kalkala — a sweet snack made with semolina and rice flour that has a special rolling technique using a fork. A version of these kalkalas can be found in several places in South India. My family calls them galgalas, and one of my earliest Christmas memories is sitting beside the elders in the wee hours of the night and rolling these snacks half-asleep.
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Our Christmas usually involves making kilos of these snacks, along with a Christian version of a gujiya, which is filled with sweetmeat, and rose cookies that are crunchy, sweet, and utterly delicious. All these together make up palgaaro, which are distributed to friends, families and neighbours, along with Christmas cake, of course.
Other families have their own distinct flavours that add to the Yuletide spirit. And this distinction is what is absolutely fascinating. A friend who traces her origins to Uttar Pradesh, revealed that her family’s traditional Christmas meal consists of mutton curry, yakhni pulao, and zarda — a form of sweet rice. “It is what manna in heaven must taste like,” she told me. It’s a rather tall claim, since according to Biblical mythology, manna was sent by God to starving Israelites after their escape from slavery in Egypt, and is supposed to be the most delicious thing ever. Think chocolate, but 100 times better.
For another friend in Kerala, Christmas means kappa puzhuku — a dish made by boiling tapioca and other tubers, served with a spicy chutney.
One of the reasons food is such a huge part of Christmas is because the three weeks preceding the festival, known as advent, are supposed to be a time of abstinence where several people voluntarily give up non-vegetarian meals. And when it is time, you will mostly find people stuffing their faces on 24 December.
The ‘English’ misconception
A major reason, as I have been made aware, for the apparent ‘foreignness’ of Christmas is the predominance of the English language in our carols, masses and prayers. However, it is worth noting that along with ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’, Indian Christians have grown up singing carols like ‘Hum charwahe nache jhoom ke’ and ‘Bade din ki khushi’ in Hindi. My own childhood Christmas revolved around Tamil songs like ‘Yesuve Jeevan’.
The characteristic midnight Christmas masses are mostly bilingual to ensure maximum participation, and we refer to Jesus as Yesu just as often and Mother Mary as Maada Mariam.
Personally, my grandmother was fluent in Tamil, and we have grown up saying prayers and singing hymns in our mother tongue. We all grew up calling Santa Claus, ‘Christmas thatha’ (grandfather in Tamil). The misconception that English is our primary language of communication is just that, a misconception.
There seems to be a voluntary ignorance surrounding Christian festivals in India, much like Eid. While the comparison is nowhere equitable, with things much worse for Muslims in India, how a festival is viewed is symptomatic of the dominant cultural tradition one inhabits.
In its very first year that the Narendra Modi government came to power, the BJP designated 25 December as ‘Good Governance Day’. While the designation could have been innocuous, the fact that there was almost a complete erasure of the mention of a major festival was jarring.
In addition, a certain hostility has seeped in over the years towards Christmas and Christians. Most recently, in Assam, a Bajrang Dal leader threatened to beat up Hindus who visited churches on Christmas.
This was just a threat. But in 2017, Christmas carollers were assaulted by a mob in Madhya Pradesh, and their vehicle was also burnt. Not only was there no action against the mob, the police instead arrested the carol singers based on a complaint of a man alleging conversion attempt.
This fear has seeped into our church communities as well. Small churches try to wrap up services early on Christmas night, and even volumes of attendees have been reduced because one never knows which Right-wing group might take offence at people visiting church. Considering the vicious ‘love jihad’ campaign, and now laws against inter-faith marriages, there is apprehension over possible future campaign against Christian conversions — the fear is not unfounded.
But through it all, the spirit of Christmas endures. The spirit of a desi Christmas.
Views are personal.