The essential East-Indian Christmas
No reindeer? No snow? No problem. East Indians, the city’s oldest Christians, celebrate with unique traditions
Growing up, one of my classmates once had great trouble explaining where her home town was.
“I’m from Bombay,” she said.
“Ah. So you’re Maharashtrian,” I replied.
“No. No. I’m Catholic.”
“Then you must be from Mangalore, Goa or Kerala, right?”
“No. I’m East Indian. THIS is my native place!”
“But we are in west India! So where is your native place?”
Perhaps it was the timing. I’d just learned about the East India Company in history class and convinced myself that she was hiding a connection to our British colonisers. Worse, no one else could quite explain what made East Indians different from other Catholics.
I know better now. India’s East Indians are Catholics who’ve indeed been natives of Bombay, Thane and Palghar. They trace their Christian roots as far back as the 6th century AD, long before the Portuguese began consolidating the community in the 1500s and certainly before they gave Bombay over to the British in 1661. Much of this clarity comes from efforts within the community to record and popularise their unique Portuguese-Christian-Indian history and culture.
The most recent of those efforts is the East Indian Memory Co, a digital initiative set up in 2017 by Reena Pereira-Almeida, who divides her time between Brisbane and Mumbai. Via a website and social media, she records characteristics, artefacts and oral histories of the fast-changing community. See what she considers integral to an East Indian Christmas:
Everything is customised
“Christmas falls smack bang in the midst of the wedding season,” Pereira-Almeida says. This means December marks a swell in non-resident East Indians returning home for the festivities. “For women, preparations begin when tailors and seamstresses are booked months in advance so that the dresses will be ready in time for Christmas. In Bassein and Bombay, your ensemble is only as good as your tailor and the best ones are flooded with orders by October.”
And starts early
Churches start prep from the first Sunday of December, which Pereira-Almeida says is “the cue for villages and neighbourhoods to start working on their Nativity scenes, called gothas”. The tableau is elaborate – some are set up with gigantic stars or by lakes or baokhals (ponds) and feature light and sound shows that are typically unveiled after midnight mass on December 25. “Nearly every gotha features a socio-political theme,” she adds. “Many also highlight issues plaguing the community (alcoholism, attacks on Christians, female empowerment, drug abuse among the youth, etc).” The gothas compete at regional and city-wide contests, and winners get bragging rights for the year.
There’s plenty of food
“Families start making the sweets one week before Christmas, allowing enough time to make quantities large enough to distribute to friends and family,” Pereira-Almeida says. The kuswar (or sweets platter, also called kosvar, konswat and similar variations) will have a slice of Christmas cake, marzipan, kul-kuls (fried dough bits in various shapes), sweets made with milk cream, dal or semolina, nankatai, neuries (or karanjis), date rolls and rose cookies. “Kuswar from families that send the tastiest treats are always anticipated.”
And soup too
“Pintyacha Sop, a bracing and soul-warming country chicken soup [‘sop’ is pronounced like ‘soap’] is not only a common East Indian folk medicine but also a Christmas Eve tradition,” Pereira-Almeida says. “We prepare it before heading out for midnight mass and it’s the first thing we have once we return home.” After the sop come the Christmas sweets and cake, the fruity/boozy plum version or the fancier one with date and walnut.
Look out for carollers
On the nights leading up to Christmas, carollers dress up in the traditional sari, the lugra, and travel in an open jeep or bullock cart singing Christmas carols in Marathi and English. “The end of the parade usually involves a skit or some other form of entertainment,” Pereira-Almeida says. “It’s a wonderful display of community spirit.”
Christmas day is hectic
An East Indian will usually wake up late on Christmas Day (if they have attended midnight service/partied hard), continue with preparations for Christmas lunch, call friends and family to wish them and sit down to a leisurely family lunch. “A post-prandial nap around tea time usually follows,”says Pereira-Almeida. “And at twilight, everyone sets out to watch/participate in athletic tournaments or entertainment at the parish church.”
Does it end with a drink?
Only if you want it to. “There is always a batch of khimad brewing on the stovetop on a cold Christmas night. A hot toddy concoction made with coriander, pieces of turmeric and spices, a finger or two of country liquor or whisky is usually added to a glass of khimad.”