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A mix of local flavours and tradition: How an Indian Christmas is celebrated

Christmas celebrations in India include both local practices and universal customs. And each city or state has its own unique style of merrymaking.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2017 09:49 IST
HT Correspondent
People light candles and offer prayers on the eve of Christmas at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi, on Sunday
People light candles and offer prayers on the eve of Christmas at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi, on Sunday(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

Come December, and there is a mood of celebration in the air. Holidays get planned, parties are discussed and the coming new year fills hearts with hope. But before the current year is given a farewell, there is of course the last festival of the year to be celebrated – Christmas, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem centuries ago. Unlike some occasions like Thanksgiving and Halloween, which India learnt to celebrate more recently, the history of Christmas celebrations in India is perhaps as old as the arrival of Christianity in the country. And over the years, it has picked up local flavours, to become a celebration that is as Indian as it is global – songs in praise of Jesus are sung in local languages along with the usual English carols and local sweets and savouries share table space with plum pudding, cold meats and wine.

In India, Christians constitute only 2.3 per cent of the population (as per Census 2011). But Christmas celebrations are not restricted to Christians. Most children, irrespective of religion, hang up stockings on Christmas Eve, and at Midnight Mass, non-Christians often outnumber Christians at churches. Bada Din (or Big Day) as Christmas is locally known – is literally bada for us. Markets are packed with Christmas trees and decorations, shop windows are decked up in Christmas colours, concerts are held, clubs organise parties, restaurants offer special menus and confectionary stores do brisk business. Read on to get a feel of how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of India, or to know what you should do if you are there this festival season.

Cake & Coffee At The Cathedral Church Of Redemption

In Delhi while people usually think of Khan Market or possibly the malls while thinking of places to buy Christmas decorations and gifts and papers etc, the best place to do one’s Christmas shopping in the capital, and at a fraction of the price at Khan Market, is Sadar Bazar. There are rows of shops along the street with every kind of Christmas tree imaginable – trees with white leaves, with green ones, with tinsel on them or blinking lights – other items of decoration, tableaus or scenes from the Nativity etc. I know families from other parts of North India coming to Sadar Bazar to do their Christmas shopping. Just last week, when I was there to do my own shopping, I met a family from Bhatinda who were here for the day to make their Christmas purchases.

File photo of a Christmas concert at the Cathedral Church Of Redemption in New Delhi. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Most confectionaries in town sell Christmas cakes and goodies – and the cake at Wenger’s is good, but Christian families in town do their own baking. Every family has its own recipe, handed down through the generations. The ingredients for the cake are bought from the masala market in old Delhi, Khari Baoli. The mixing is done at home and then it is taken to small, local bakeries for the baking. If you do not have friends in the city, or have not been invited to a house party, there are suppliers who can provide you some home-like cake.

The Christmas Eve evening is for Midnight Mass – and one place to go to if you are in Delhi, is the Cathedral Church of Redemption. This Church in the President’s Estate is today a heritage monument. On Christmas Eve the church is packed by both Christians and non-Christians alike and the Service is followed by cake and coffee. In Delhi, much of the festival food for Christians is inspired by what’s prepared for other festivals across North India. So for example, Gujiya, which is a Holi dish, is also made for Christmas. We have two variants – keema gujiya and sweet gujiya. The syncretic Indo-Gangetic culture also translates into Mughal influence on our food. That’s how Yakhni Pulao is a common Christmas dish in Delhi., as is Zarda, a sweet dish made with saffron. We also have cold, salted meat. To sample all this though, you need an invitation to a house party, and there are a number of them in Delhi.

(By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, international publishing consultant )

Mass At The Open Maidan and Waltzing Away The Night

Christmases in Mumbai are warm – and not because it just doesn’t get cold in this part of the world. The city’s Christian community is spread across the island city and suburbs; some churches are almost 450 years old. So, wherever you live, you don’t have to go far for shop windows dressed in festive red and green, the glint of tree ornaments in street markets, or the fragrance of plum cake.

Merrymaking starts early. By the first week of December, Bandra’s Hill Road, Malad’s Orlem and Borivali’s IC Colony neighbourhoods are overrun with stalls selling festive knick-knacks – plastic trees, Santa hats and marzipan in all shapes and sizes.

By the first week of December, Bandra’s Hill Road, Malad’s Orlem and Borivali’s IC Colony neighbourhoods are overrun with stalls selling festive knick-knacks – plastic trees, Santa hats and marzipan in all shapes and sizes. (Sashi S Kashyap/HT PHOTO)

The furniture store Damian, near Bandra’s iconic Mehboob Studio, puts so much effort into its massive window displays that the store has become a selfie spot where families from distant suburbs gather for pictures before they head to the nearby Bandstand seaside promenade. Previous displays have included winter scenes complete with castle; Santa in his sleigh, attended by elves, reindeer and fairy lights. A fake snowman too, which had to be explained to children standing outside in 18-degree temperatures.

Across the city, churches set up the nativity scene on the premises – ceramic statues of Mary, Joseph, hay-stuffed empty manger (Jesus is filled in only on December 25), ox, ass, angels and the star. The three wise men arrive on January 6. Most churches also weave in a social or news theme with messages of peace, simplicity and a charitable spirit. Check out the panoramas at Mount Mary’s Basilica in Bandra, Holy Name Cathedral in Colaba, Gloria Church in Byculla and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Chembur.

To join in the fun, catch carol-singing groups at churches on the evenings leading up to Christmas (dates and times vary, but tend to start after 7pm). Many choirs do renditions in Hindi, Marathi and Konkani too.

On Christmas Eve, celebrations officially start after Midnight Mass. The term is a bit of a stretch – churches with large populations hold services at maidans, starting as early as 8pm to stay within the 10 pm deadline for loudspeakers. Go early. The seats fill up.

On Christmas Day, churches are open through most of the morning for services. If you’re not invited to a family lunch or dinner, get yourself a dancing partner, iron your best formals, and buy tickets to a night-long Christmas dance.

All the clubs have them. For true Christmas spirit, though, tag along with a member to the Catholic Gymkhana on Marine Drive, Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana in Santacruz or the Bandra Gym. Their pre-Christmas events include bingo nights, festive bazaars, senior-citizen parties, Santa visits and plenty of dances. And there’s everything from ham sandwiches and pulao to cookies and cake at the buffet.

(By Rachel Lopez)

Cake from Nahoum’s, Wine From Bow Barracks And Parties At Park Street

“According to me the best thing about Christmas in Kolkata and what makes it unique – and I have heard this even from those living in UK and Australia and who come to celebrate the festival here - is how cosmopolitan the celebrations here are. About 80 per cent of those celebrating Christmas in Kolkata are non-Christians, says Barry O’Brien, president-in-chief of the All India Anglo Indian Association.

File photo of Christmas revellers on Park Street. (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

The first signs of the festival in the city are the stalls selling Christmas decorations that come up in the centre of one of the city’s most popular shopping hubs – New Market. From a distance, the area looks like just a colourful mass of Christmass trees, chains of Holly and mistletoe leaves, Santa Clauses of all sizes, shiny bells, stars and balls and every other kind of Christmas decoration possible. Though a number of gourmet confectionaries have opened in the city over the years, for many, Christmas shopping is incomplete without the rich plum or fruit cake from Nahoum And Sons in New Market. Many though also prefer to buy home-made Christmas cakes which is informally sold by many Christian families in Bow Barracks and other places. Other Christmas goodies which many Anglo-Indians in Kolkata continue to make are Rose Cookies and Kulkuls, but again, for these you have to be either friends with a family which makes them or get someone to sell a few to you. If in Calcutta for Christmas, do make sure to sample the home-made wine which many in Bow Barracks make and sell. Though a little on the sweet side, most Christmas home parties in the city are incomplete without wine from Bow Barracks. The colony also organises a week-long Christmas festivity, which is open to all.

“Most celebrations in Kolkata, like Pujo, spill out on the streets, and Christmas is no different. In Bow Barracks on the 23rd there is music and dancing on the streets, where you will find ladies in their traditional attire and high heels, dancing,” says O’Brien. He adds, “The other thing which is feel is unique to Kolkata is the club culture here. While in most cities, the social clubs are for the affluent, in Kolkata, many clubs have members from even among the middle-class.Almost all these clubs have Christmas parties.” While at most clubs the party is on Christmas Eve, at Dalhousie institute the party is on Christmas, since it continues to have many Anglo-Indian members, who are likely to attend Midnight Mass on 24th. Find a member, to take you to one of these parties to enjoy Christmas music, Yule-tide specialities like Plum Pudding and Cake, dancing and more.

For the past few years, the state government is also organising a Christmas to New Year festival on Park Street. The street is lit up and old Park Street institutions, restaurants like Mocambo and Peter Cat, are packed with revelers. Flury’s, also on Park Street, is a round-the-year favourite breakfast destination, but on Christmas and New Year, it is something of a ritual to be there.

(By Poulomi Banerjee)

Celebrate Like They Do At Goa’s Old, Quaint ‘Latin Quarter

Most tourists never realize it, but Goa is most beautiful and welcoming during its favourite festivals, especially Ganesh Chaturthi. Another one celebrated with tremendous joie de vivre is Christmas, when far-flung sons and daughters and grandchildren return home to gather anew, and the entire countryside wears an irrepressible festive aspect. It is a beloved time of year for locals of every religious and ethnic background, as villages bylanes fill with neighborhood children singing carols, and older aunties busily carrying sweets to distribute to the neighbours.

The Christmas feeling is particularly intense in the endlessly atmospheric old neighborhoods of Panjim, which together form what is often called the “Latin Quarter”. Here, the narrow alleyways lined with pastel-hued 19th century houses,become lit up with paper stars, their overhanging balconies festooned with ribbons and streamers. Take a walk any time during the festival season and you are sure to come across a family reunion spilling out of tiny, hidden courtyards, with at least one guitar-bearing troubadour in the mix.

Midnight Mass at the Chapel Of St Sebastian in Goa.

The best way to feel like a local in this outrageously picturesque tableau vivant is to join the fun on Christmas Eve, starting with prix-fixe dinner at the gorgeous little Venite Restaurant (reservations only) where you will jam into pocket-sized tables with a view, and feast on lobster and champagne, while being serenaded by a local trio. This is the platonic ideal of famiy Christmas dinner, with warm sentiments and bonhomie shared by a like-minded crew from all around the world.

But then it is time for the main event in this still-Catholic and traditional neighborhood. Almost everyone at Venite troops out down the stairs, and heads straight down the street to the 19th century Chapel of St. Sebastian, where hundreds of chairs have been assembled in the street, so that appropriately dressed visitors and locals alike can experience Midnight Mass to celebrate the momentuous birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, over two thousand years ago.

After a solemn, but uplifting service, the fun starts up all over again. Everyone embraces everyone else, and greetings in Portuguese, Konkani and English fill the night air. The proud owners of the houses lining this street set out tables, and serve everyone bracing coffee and rich plum cake. Christmas has come, and Goa rejoices.

(By Vivek Menezes, writer-photographer and co-founder and curator of the Goa Arts and Literature festival)

Spiritual Songs In Hindi And Sadri, Rose Cakes And Christmas Picnics

Christmas in Ghatsila, though a major festival, is a quiet affair, not at all ostentatious. In the Moubhandar area, in the township of the copper factory, where I grew up, there are two churches: St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, and Grace Union Protestant church. During Christmas, both these churches are beautifully decorated with colourful lights, and Christmas songs in Sadri and Hindi are played. I remember one Hindi song, “Paida hua hai taaranhaara / Dekho, charni mein leta hua” (The Saviour is born / He is lying in the manger), and a Sadri song, “Charni ka tara tim-tim-tim-tim chamkela” (The star in the manger twinkles). For visitors used to hearing Christmas songs and carols in English, this might be quite an experience.

The Bengali Methodist Church in Pakur, Jharkhand. (Photo courtesy: The Facebook Page of The Bengali Methodist Church)

Christmas brings back memories of cakes, rose cakes, and arsa pitha. Most of the nurses in the hospital my mother worked at were Christian Adivasis. After returning from their respective churches on the morning of December 25, they sent us tiffin boxes full of Christmas goodies they had made in their houses. But if you don’t have such friends to bring you Christmas goodies, the ICC Bakery, does quite well. This iconic shop is in Mosaboni, just opposite St. Barbara Catholic Church. The oldest bakery in Ghatsila, ICC Bakery has been around since I can remember. The cakes and baked items of ICC Bakery are famous, and, for Christmas, they prepare fruit cakes and plum cakes. On special order, they prepare other Christmas dishes as well.

Christmas is a holiday for most people, so picnics are organised. The Subarnarekha river bank, Burudih Dam, Dharagiri Falls, Galudih barrage, Purnapani, and the Rankini Mandir in Jadugora are popular picnic spots around Ghatsila. Visitors might consider going for one too, to join in the mood of the day, as well as enjoy Ghatsila’s scenic beauty.

I now work in Pakur, and Christmas in Pakur is as quiet as in Ghatsila though the enthusiasm is remarkable and infectious. The Bengali Methodist Church – a huge and impressive building in red – and the Jidato Mission campus surrounding this church need to be seen. They are as beautiful as any tourist spot. Popular picnic spots and places worth visiting in and around Pakur include Sido-Kanhu Park, Dharni Pahar, Prakriti Vihar in Amrapara, St. Luke’s Mission campus in Hiranpur, the hot water springs in Maheshpur, Motijharna Falls in Sahebganj, Massanjore Dam in Dumka, and the Hazaarduaari Palace in Murshidabad.

(By Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, writer)

Women Selling Holly And Christmas Songs In Garo And Khasi

You know the yuletide spirit has hit Shillong when you come across women from surrounding villages selling holly in cane baskets in the busy Motphran intersection, located at the entrance of the town’s biggest traditional market. Called ‘soh krismas’ in the local jargon, little bunches of the red berries will find their way into households across town, as part of the Christmas decor.

Christmas is the highlight of winter in Meghalaya, which is predominantly Christian, and the entire month of December is soaked in a festive fervour. This is a season when work takes a backseat and the schools and colleges are in the middle of a long winter break.

The main intersection in Shillong, lit up for Christmas.

The central retail district, Police Bazaar, is flooded with a sea of people as shopping frenzy reaches its peak, with everything from clothes to consumer electronics flying off the shelves. Be there to shop, or just to see the light and decorations at the main intersection nearby. As you walk through the quieter residential neighbourhoods, you will be greeted by Christmas star lamps glowing at the entrances of houses, while Christmas trees adorn the interiors.

‘Family’ is at the core of Christmas in Shillong, and festivities are intimate in nature. Many families gather around a fire on Christmas Eve, and a large majority go to the churches for the Midnight Service, as Shillong ushers in the big day. A majority of those who study and work outside the state return home for the holidays, so Christmas is a reunion for many.

Food is an important part of the celebrations, and traditional delicacies include doh jem (a meat preparation), putharo (steamed rice cakes), jadoh (a rice and meat preparation), and doh sniang nei-iong (a pork and sesame preparation). You can get these at restaurants serving the local cuisine, but of course, if you can make it to a home meal, then nothing like it. Garo specialities include pork dishes like wak pura, chambil wak, and khappa are popular during Christmas. Sakin gata is a sticky rice cake preparation, a local Garo dessert that people enjoy during the festival. Cakes are plentiful during this season, and you can expect a serving of plain and fruit cake with your tea almost everywhere.

Carol singing is another annual tradition followed with gusto in the towns of Meghalaya. Khasi renditions of popular English Christmas songs and originals too, are sung and played everywhere. Many local artists appear on televised Christmas performances. The Nativity scene is recreated in mini-stages across Shillong, while shops are decorated with seasonal paraphernalia.

The Garo Hills have their own distinctive ways of celebrating Christmas, and community dynamics are showcased to the fullest. Each village is tasked with making a phasa, a hut-type structure. This structure is the hub of festivities, where people of the community come to sing Christmas tunes in the Garo language, usually to the beat of traditional drums. Do visit one of these, if you are here for Christmas. The people of Garo Hills take their Christmas trees very seriously, and in 2003, a record-breaking 120-foot tall tree was installed in a Tura neighbourhood.

(By Silvester Phanbuh, freelance writer)

A Mom’s And Daughter’s Memories Of A Family Christmas

“My mom is German and that influenced my experiences of Christmas while growing up. For me, the first sign of the approaching festival was the Christmas cookies that my grandmother used to send from Germany,” says 23-year-old Ayesha Kapur, best remembered as the child actor in the 2005 film Black. “I grew up in Auroville, so my Christmas memories are more from there than from Puducherry. But when I would go to town, I would see Casablanca, a departmental store run by my mom, decked up for Christmas.”

“When my kids were younger I used to throw Christmas parties for the children in Auroville,” says her mother, Jacqueline. Most of Ayesha’s memories of the festival are of celebrations at home. “We had this tradition of my father reading the Christmas story to us on Christmas Eve, and we were allowed to open our presents only after that,” she says. “I would visit the antique shops in Puducherry for Christmas gifts for my parents. There are quite a few good ones, so visitors can check them out. Also, the bakery at Auroville or the local Aurovillian food manufacturers make great Christmas cake and an assortment of other cakes,” she says. Her mother adds, “Since Puducherry was a French colony, there is that influence. Most French restaurants serve some special food for Christmas. Also, one gets beautiful models representative of the Nativity outside the big church in Puducherry around this time.”

(As told to Poulomi Banerjee)

A Carnival And The Burning Of Santa Claus

Christmas in Kochi is unique because it coincides with the Cochin Carnival, which begins before Christmas and culminates in the New Year. Carol singing is popular and not just in the churches. Children go carol singing in the parishes. It starts before Christmas and continues up to New Year’s Eve. But now for the most startling custom. Most Indians would know of the North Indian custom of burning an effigy of Ravana on Dussehra. But in Kochi, they burn Santa Claus on New Year’s Eve. The custom is said to signify the burning of the old and the welcoming of the new. The Carnival organisers also burn a big Santa on the beach.

For a bit of nostalgia, head to the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica for Midnight Mass. The service here has an Indo-European feel to it. Another church where you can go for a feel of history is the St Francis Church, where the remains of Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama were once buried. Try to get an invitation to a family Christmas breakfast. It consists of traditional beef stew, eaten with bread or appam. The head of the family serves the stew, and everyone eats together. Most families also brew wine for Christmas, and some make extra to sell.

Eating Yellow Rice And Ball Curry And Dancing To Country Music

In Bilaspur, till the last generation, every Anglo-Indian family had some railways connection,” says Andrew Clive Macfarland, secretary of the Anglo Indian Association of Bilaspur. The scenario is hardly surprising when one looks back at the number of Anglo-Indians who used to be employed in the Indian railways across the country. That’s how the old institute – or club – at Bilaspur used to be run by the Anglo-Indian Association.

The old Institute in Bilaspur.

“It had a dance hall, facility to play billiards and snooker, and housie and cards. There were grand Christmas and New Year celebrations,” says Macfarland. But some years back the Institute was taken over by the railways as office space, claims Macfarland.

The Association though, continues to organise a Christmas Ball. “The music is still the same – Jim Reeves and country songs – and the ladies come in dresses. The food includes old Anglo-Indian favourites such as mulligatawny soup, yellow rice and ball curry,” says Macfarland. Remember the scene from the hit 1975 film Julie, where the male protagonist meets Julie at one such party at a railway colony club? This Christmas drop into an old railway colony like Bilaspur for a rewind party. You need an Anglo-Indian member to get you in though, at the nominal charge of ₹400.

(By Poulomi Banerjee)

Singing In The Lord’s Praise
If you have been to any Church in India around Christmas, chances are that you would have heard choirs singing a few songs in praise of the Lord in some regional language.

While for most people in India, Christmas music continues to be Silent Night, Jingle Bells and Mary’s Boy Child, what of those songs that we sometimes hear, but know little about? “From what I have heard, most of the Indian Christmas songs are copies of the Western classics. But I would say there is very little of even that,” says Neil Nongkynrih, who founded the critically acclaimed Shillong Chamber Choir in 2001.

A concert of the Shillong Chamber Choir. (Photo courtesy: The Shillong Chamber Choir)

The Choir’s Christmas album, released in 2011, was a bestseller. But Nongkynrih says that they had stuck to the traditional carols – Rudolf, O Little Town of Bethlem, Mary’s Boy Child…

“In churches in India that I have been to, I have heard spiritual music in the regional languages, but not Christmas songs,” he repeats.

Even abroad, he says, Christmas music continues to be traditional. “There is a market. If some composer was to record a new album, it would probably sell. But few try. We hear the same traditional songs,” he says, adding, “one reason for this can be that Christmas celebrations are all about keeping up the traditions. And because it is a once-in-a-year occasion, we don’t mind hearing the same songs again and again.”

In India, he says, some of the best Church choirs he has heard are of the Mizos and the Nagas. “There is a strong Church culture in these places. The choir practises every Sunday, if not during the week too. So they are very good,” he says.

(By Poulomi Banerjee)

Food For Celebration: The Christmas meal in India often includes local dishes and family specialities. Here are two to try at home this year :

Yakhni Pulao

Ingredients:

1 kg meat

1/2 kg long grained rice

1/4 kg cooking oil

1 large pod garlic

7 medium sized onions

11/2 inch piece of fresh ginger

2 tablespoons coriander powder

Salt to taste

3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 large cardamom

3-4 one-inch pieces of cinnamon

2 bay leaves

Garam masala to taste

8-10 long cloves

12-15 pepper corns

11/2 cups dahi

Preparation

Clean and wash the meat.

Scrape the skin off the ginger.

Peel an onion, 7-8 cloves of garlic.

Slice the remaining onions finely and chop the remaining garlic, finely.

Crush the cardamom slightly

Beat the curd to remove lumps

Clean and wash the rice.

Method

Put the meat in a pressure cooker.

Add the ginger, whole onion and peeled garlic to the meat. Add the coriander powder and salt.

Add three cups of water. Pressure cook for 15-16 minutes .

Remove the meat and keep aside.

Strain the yakhni and keep it.

In a large pan put oil and fry the onions until they are brown.

Remove the onion, add more oil if needed, and add the cumin.

Add the chopped garlic with half a cup of water. Cover the pan and allow it to cook.

When the water is dry, add 11/2 tablespoons browned onions, the garam masala, cardamom, cinnamon, the meat and the dahi. Stir until the water is dry, the oil separates and the meat is brown.

Add the washed rice and fry for a minute or two.

Add the yakhni and some salt.

When the water begins to boil, turn the heat down to simmer and allow the pullao to cook.

Check with a knife to see if the water has dried at the bottom of the pan.Then turn off the heat. Allow the pullao to stand for about 15 minutes to absorb the moisture. Serve hot, garnished with browned onions.

Christmas Cake

Ingredients

1/2 kg mixed peel cut fine (a little more peel can be put, if desired)

125 g preserved ginger

1/2 kgs almonds, blanched and shelled or use walnuts

1/2 kg raisins

1/2 kgs sultanas

250 g currants ( if you can get good ones, otherwise do not use)

1/2 kg fine flour

1/2 kg sugar ( Burn about 100 gms to get the dark colour of the cake)

20 eggs, good size, separated

1 kg butter

1 or 2 level tbsps ground spices (jaiphal, javetri, barri elaichi, dalchini, laung – all ground dry)

Method

Mix the sugar and butter together and beat until creamy.

Gradually add egg yolks, continue beating.

Once well beaten, add the flour, a little at a time, beating all the time.

Add the mixed peel, ground spices, preserved ginger, almonds, raisins, sultanas and currants.

Mix thoroughly.

Christmas Cake - Representational image (Shutterstock)

Add a generous dash of brandy /sherry/ rum now, if desired or dribble later over the baked cakes.

Lastly fold the stiffly beaten egg whites.

Put into baking dishes immediately.

Bake in a slow oven until the colour is a rich brown.

(Recipes Courtesy: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, international publishing consultant)