As I cuddle up with my chai on this chilly December morning, I'm transported through time via photographs of a very memorable Christmas: one spent with my husband and his brother and our sister-in-law in Southern India a few years ago.
Christmas in India is as colorful, unexpected, boisterous, fun and totally unapologetic as any other holiday in this wondrous land! Subtlety is simply not on the menu here. Here are some snapshots and memories of our experience spending Christmas and the winter holidays in India.
After spending six months living and traveling in India four years ago, we were nearing the end of our tourist visa around Christmas and we were determined to go out with a bang. My brother and sister-in-law joined us for a 10-day sojourn across the Southern parts of the country, a trip we carefully laid out starting in Panaji, Goa (the location of our apartment and home base) and carrying on by train to Hampi, Bangalore and finishing up in Chennai.
This wasn't my first Christmas in India; I had been there with my photographer dad while he was on an assignment about ten years prior. And I had spent yet another holiday season with him traveling throughout Myanmar and Laos, floating down the Mekong on Christmas morning when I was about eleven. You get the gist: I'm a travel addict with a serious interest and love for the subcontinent in particular.
Christmas in Southern India is an event. The percentage of Indians who are Christian and celebrating Christmas isn't large, but that doesn't exclude many people of all different religions from participating in some form of celebration. With the pantheon of gods worshipped in Hinduism, Jesus seemed to be just another guy to add to the mix of legends, heroes and teachers.
While on a train on Christmas Eve, I shared some chai from a giant steel vat with an elderly woman and explained a few basic tenets of Judaism and Christianity (I grew up in a mixed household of Jewish and Christian faith) and she liked the idea of Jesus and his message of kindness, so she shrugged a bit, smiled and declared she would celebrate Christmas that year. This inclusive, open-mindedness and curiosity was indicative of most all the interactions I had with people while living in India —with the exception of tut tut and cab drivers whom I argued with unmercifully!
From about December 1st through the new year, our city of Panaji, Goa, was decorated to the nines with lights, streamers, papier-mâché bells and Christmas trees. Diwali, an autumnal Hindu holiday, incorporates lights, lanterns and votives as part of a weeklong festival, and its celebration seemed to have just come and gone and already new decorations were up in the main square and all over the towering Catholic church in the center of town. If there's a way to add sparkle and flowers to things, Southern Indians are all over it.
One evening, a few nights before Christmas, we were greeted at our apartment by carolers and a man dressed as Santa, complete with a plastic mask and beard (actually a little creepy). We were serenaded with the usual Christmas songs, all danced a bit, passed around some chai and shook everyone's hands, photographed each other with all phones/digital cameras from pockets and hugged. These Indian folks seemed as surprised to find us Americans in an apartment complex as we were at them singing us "Jingle Bell Rock." It was just another day in India where something amazing, silly and awesome occurred.
The food of Southern India varies from state to state, city to city — but it is grounded in tropical flavors, fragrant spices and the use of coconut oil and ghee. During Christmas time, a few bakeries added a chocolate ladoo or two to their counter, but not a sugar cookie nor brownie could be found. The only time I found myself with a pang of homesickness was getting into the holiday spirit without those critical foods.
Typical of Indian homes, our kitchen was not equipped with an oven, so I was unable to turn out my usual myriad of cookies. We hardly felt sorry for ourselves though, with our Christmas morning treat of tropical papaya, fresh curds from the clay pot yogurt walla down our street and tiny, pungent limes to brighten all the flavors.
If you ever have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas (or any holiday for that matter), in India, I urge you to jump on that plane without a moment's hesitation. The colorful food, generous people, amazing customs and traditions will delight, mystify and astound you at the very core of your being. I'm ready to go back!
We're celebrating Christmas and the winter holidays around the world, inviting friends and fellow writers from The Philippines to France to Rwanda to share how the holidays are celebrated in their corner of the world.