There is more to festivals of India than commemoration of events rooted in Indian mythology—Diwali is a big one with Rama defeating the Ravana. Christmas celebrations in India are a testimony to the eclectic mix that the country is. In Indian Christmas: Essays, Memoirs, Hymns, editors Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle have put together a sweet collection of reminiscences, poetry, photographs, and paintings to provide a glimpse of the Christmas spirit as it inhabits different neighborhoods in India. The essays and memoirs are leisurely walks in streets filled with merriment and an intimate view of households as families celebrate the joy of Christmas with cooking and feasting.
The interesting historical references include Pinto quoting Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:
As Buddha offered people his incomparable friendship, he [Jesus] announced not only a scripture, he awakened love in the hearts of many. And in the love is really the salvation.
Then there is Manimugdha S Sharma referring to Jesuit priest Jerome Xavier mentioning elaborate Christmas celebrations in Lahore during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign and a beautiful painting—“Mother Mary and Child Christ”—from the mid-18th century during the reign of Muhammad Shah.
Pinto also offers interesting commentary on cultural intersections between India and elsewhere:
There wasn’t much snow in Bombay, except when someone from the family pulled out an old record of Jim Reeves singing ‘White Christmas’ and we all listened respectfully because ‘those old singers were the best, what voices – you can understand what they’re saying, not like this modern noise’. (Where do old songs from the US go to die? They go to Goan Roman Catholic homes and parties.)
On the subject of Bombay itself, Deborah Rosario paints a pretty picture of Bandra, a lovely Christian suburb close to the heart of the city:
It is rather wonderful to turn the corner from a non-celebrating district and come upon, like a revelation, celebratory Bandra scenes. This historically Christian suburb truly radiates Christmas. I drive around the winding streets and allow myself to be infected by the Christmas spirit that is a tangible thing in the air. Bungalows and streetlamps are wreathed with Christmas lights. Christmas music wafts out of houses. Shops and street-side stalls run by women sell colourful Christmas sweets. The streets are alive with a carnivalesque atmosphere, thronged with purposeful shoppers intent on acquiring festive goods. Hill Road is a-shimmer with the tinsel of Christmas decorations on sale.
Calcutta seems to be on “a ramp walk” given that even the poorest people manage to get hold of something new, a Santa cap, if nothing else. During Christmas, or for the ‘burra din’ (as Christmas is called there), the Bow Barracks neighborhood becomes a party street with everyone stepping to dance. The carnival is arranged by the Anglo-Indians who carry forward the tradition of Christmas celebration after Europeans left at the time of India’s independence. Mohana Kanjilal describes Armenian Christmas food relished during the festivities: anoush abour, the Armenian Christmas pudding made with wheat, berries, and dried apricots.
Other regions and cities also have their own traditions of welcoming Christmas: Goa, Shillong, Kerala, Chandigarh and more. There is a memory narrated in Hindi about Simdega Sawai village from Jharkhand: Mary Sushma Kindo remembers that buying new clothes was a Christmas affair in the village as was the special food that included non vegetarian dishes. She waxes nostalgic for the village celebrations because there the celebrations last longer—until the New Year. She says “Gaon ki khushi alag hai” (the happiness one finds in the village is different). Damodar Mauzo, the Konkani writer from Goa, also invokes the village celebrations in his account of Christmas. He likens it to the Chawath or the Ganesh pooja festival of the Hindus—both the occasions have neighbours share sweets and spread joy.
The point of all these accounts is that Christmas in India is a beautiful case study in Indianization of faith. The book contrasts and supplements the images of snowy Christmas of Europe and America by spotlighting India’s local cuisine, customs, and cultural heritage. The most beautiful example is the translation below. It is the English translation of one of the tappe-boliyan, couplets set to semic-classical music in Punjabi. The verse is composed by South Asian Women in Bethlehem Punjabi Church, New York:
It is time for the contest of Tappe.
I, girl of the Punjabi church,
Never lose in this singing game.
The angel comes to Mariam,
Mariam trembles in fear;
What tidings has he brought?
The angel consoles Mariam,
‘Mariam, have no fear
I come straight from God.
‘Yesu has descended on earth,
You have given your all
To fulfil the will of the Lord.’
People wake from their sleep.
Hearing the angels’ message,
The shepherds sing out in praise.
God has granted us this day
To deliver us from sorrow:
Yesu has descended on earth!
The verse itself is a way of translating the story of Jesus and making it belong to Punjab, the way Indian Christmas itself is an indigenized, beautiful translation of the Christmas, the kind popularized by Hollywood. In this translation, pastries and mince pies give way to the local delicacies such as gajar ka halwa and tamatar ka bhartha, and St Thomas, buried in Chennai, becomes Indian. This Indianness makes Christmas a richer experience.