One of the best things about growing up in India was all the holidays we celebrated. As a multicultural country, all festivals are celebrated with lots of joy and gusto. Some of the popular festivals are Diwali, Holi, and Eid, but you may be surprised to know that India is home to a considerable population of Christians, who, along with the rest of the country, celebrate Christmas with their own rituals and traditions.
Here are some of my memories of celebrating Christmas in India.
A Catholic Christmas in India
I grew up in a Catholic family in India, and as children, we always looked forward to the Christmas break. Christmas in India is particularly religious, with church services playing a huge role in celebrating this festival. The preparations start — as in Western countries — on Advent Sunday. Churches start planning their celebrations and masses, and households start planning their food, sweets, and decorations.
Bright Color & Lights
It is a colorful festival — as are most in India — and local stores, markets, and malls are draped in multicolored twinkling fairy lights, paper streamers, and flowers. One of the things that my daughter noticed about Christmas in India last year was the brightness of it all. For Indians, festivals are always celebrated with lights and colors, and Christmas is no exception. Churches are decorated using stunning light shows and look spectacular in the night.
Most families put up a Christmas tree. Snow is in short supply, but that does not deter enterprising children from draping cotton wool all over their trees to imitate snow-covered evergreens. A lot of decorations and ornaments are handmade, and stars are everywhere. My dad put up Christmas stars all over the house and out on the roads to welcome friends, neighbors, and family to our home at Christmastime.
Christmas Food in India
Christmas cooking also starts early. Christmas sweets — mainly originating from Goa and adapted in the rest of the country — are traditionally called "kuswar," and they range from deeply delicious dense Christmas fruitcakes to rose cookies and "kidiyo" (literally translating as worms, but these are deep-fried curly dough balls, dusted in icing sugar). We also make sweet dumplings called "newrio," stuffed with palm sugar, sweet grated coconut, and sesame seeds. Savoury banana chips, crisp chaklis (a round, deep-fried savoury made with lentils), and cardamom and cashew macaroons round up a versatile collection of Christmas goodies.
Making these sweets is a family affair, as all the women in our extended family get together and make them over a weekend or two. It was an exciting time to be a child, as scraps were always plentiful, and we were also allowed to stay up late with our cousins and friends while our mothers gossiped around the kitchen.
I love all the cultural influences that go into these sweets. Fruitcakes, for example, are heavily influenced by British plum puddings, and indeed, are also occasionally called plum cakes in India. Rose cookies are a result of the Dutch occupation, and a lot of the other sweets are the result of Portuguese and French cuisines. Our Christmas is, therefore, a true melting pot of all the cultures that were part of India during colonial times.
The Christmas Crib
Along with food, the nativity scenes — we call them Christmas cribs — are an important part of our Christmas traditions. We planned our cribs early in the month, as there was always (not-so) friendly competition in the neighborhoods and between churches as to whose crib was the most elaborate. My sister and I spent hours planning our own. We grew paddy plants in small trays, and we collected bricks and sand. We could hardly wait for the day our schools closed for the Christmas break, as that is when we would pull out all our nativity statues and go about creating beautiful, detailed cribs, resplendent with lights, fields, bridges, and waterfalls.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, we would reverently place the baby Jesus statue in the scene, and then admire our handiwork all through the season.
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, we would be delirious with excitement. All that week, preparations for the day were being made. The pork (dukra maas) and chicken curries — staples of our Christmas dinners — were made in advance and left to mature. Batter was ground for sannas (steamed rice cakes) and left to ferment overnight for soft, fluffy breads, perfect to soak up all those curries. Last-minute alterations were made to our Christmas clothes and there was a lot of excitement in the air.
One of our most enduring Christmas traditions is that of the midnight mass. Churches start their services with carol singing, after which the Christmas mass is held. We were all dressed up in our best finery and after the service, we milled around the church, socializing and wishing everybody Merry Christmas. It was hot and dusty, and the smells of cooking permeated the air. After church, we usually went to visit family or friends, and shared a piece of rich fruitcake and small glasses of port wine. Us kids were allowed small sips from the grownups' wine glasses. We were also allowed to have a small taste of that pork curry, deliciously spicy and fragrant, and we would then head back home, tired but still excited for Christmas day to arrive.
We don't do Christmas presents in India. Instead, we would wake up to a hot, spicy breakfast, and then we would gather up the boxes of dark fruitcakes and homemade kuswar and head over to all our neighbors', family, and friends' homes. It didn't matter if they were Hindu, Christian, or Muslim — all neighbors got some goodies, and we wished them a Happy Christmas. We would finish our sweet errands by noon, after which it was time to savor a spicy Indian Christmas lunch.
Lunch done, and pleasantly satiated, we would make up for our late night with a siesta, after which it was time to head to the Christmas dance with our friends. We danced the night away, and when the sun rose on Boxing Day, we all piled into cars and headed to the beach to watch the sun rise. Then it was breakfast in a small roadside café, and home to celebrate the end of another wonderful year and look forward to the new year.
In recent times, I have spent more Christmases away from my home in India, and while we celebrate it with presents, Santa Claus, and baking, my old Christmas traditions in India will always have a special place in my heart. I try to recreate some of them for my daughter and family, and for us, it is a celebration that encompasses all our cultures. After all, Christmas is a time for family, friends, and food. And one cannot ask for anything more than to be surrounded by tradition, love, and happiness during this most joyous of seasons.