When I was growing up in Delhi in the 1990s, for me Christmas was something straight out of English films such as Miracle On 34th Street and Home Alone. There had to be a Christmas tree, stockings, shiny baubles, and a table laden with bakes and cakes. It’s only later, when I visited towns and cities as a journalist, that I realised this homogeneous image didn’t quite fit in with the diversity of India. As you move away from the metros, you will find that no two Christmas celebrations are alike—be it in food, music or festivities.
If you will find bakeries smelling of the ghee-laden, garam masala-infused Allahabadi cakes in what is now Prayagraj, in Kerala families will be busy making the orappam, a fudgy, halwa-like dish made with rice flour, coconut milk and sugar. In Arunachal Pradesh, the khapse, deep-fried delicacies made with amaranth, have emerged as the festive snack of choice.
Music too has taken on regional hues, with Nepalese and Garo folk music making its way into carols and original compositions in Sadri and Mundari being sung in parts of Jharkhand.
Christmas in India is gloriously multicultural and it’s nothing short of a miracle that this mind-boggling diversity in traditions has served to unite, not divide. Indian Christmas: Essays, Memories, Hymns, a new anthology published by Speaking Tiger, is an ode to this richness and variety in Christmas traditions. Edited by authors Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle,and with introductions by them, the book features writings in English and translations from Indian languages by writers such as Elizabeth Kuruvilla, Mary Sushma Kindo, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Nazes Afroz, Patricia Mukhim and Nilima Das.
There is a beautiful piece, Christmas In Moon Place, by Veio Pou, about traditions in his tiny village of Khyoubu, which translates as “moon place”, in Manipur. Around festival time, Boney M, Abba and Jim Reeves resound in this sleepy village. As the winter sets in, families get set to spend more time together. Youngsters, studying in other towns, return for the holidays. Families work in unison on the celebrations. His essay presents a picture of a “communitarian village life” where people construct campsites together and prepare the community feast.
A Village Christmas by Damodar Mauzo, translated from the Konkani by Pinto, takes the idea of community even further—one where festivities are not divided by religion. In his Goan village of Majorda, chawath (Ganesh puja) and Christmas are celebrated with equal gusto. “When people call Majorda a Christian village, it angers me. Does a village have a religion?.... When our children mingled, no one cared who was Christian or Hindu or Muslim. These markers of identity may have informed some community-specific social functions, but as families living close to each other, and during festivals and larger cultural events, all differences would melt away. We were all one…. It did not matter who took the first step, and for most of us it still doesn’t. And for this reason, among many others, I am proud of my village,” he writes.
Gaon Ki Khushi Alag Hai by Kindo, who is from the Jharkhandi village of Simdega Sawai, voices similar sentiments. She writes about how the Christian and Hindu communities, living at different ends of the village, would celebrate all festivals together and live in harmony. Delhi, where she is now based, has the sparkle and shine of commercial festivities but she misses the soul of the festivities. In Delhi, she feels, Christmas celebrations last only a day, whereas Simdega Sawai would see a week-long gathering of the community.
For Liddle, who has also written an essay titled Cake Ki Roti At Dua Ka Ghar, putting the book together has been a heartwarming experience. “It has been informative as well. People staying in Kerala, Meghalaya, Manipur, Goa and Jharkhand—away from urban metros, with their Western influences—have a lot of traditions that are close to those followed for other festivals of non-Christians. Each region has made this festival their own, adding their own unique flavour to it,” she says.
Her memories of a childhood spent in north India feature gujiyas and namak paras as Christmas must-haves. For lunch, you simply had to have shami kebabs and chicken curry. “A lot of such traditions have no connection with Christianity but have a lot more local origin. This comes across very strongly in the book,” explains Liddle.
Christmas-related terms, too, keep changing in each region. Her daughter, for instance, had learnt a carol in school that went “aage aage taara, peeche peeche pandit log”, with the wise men translated as pandit log. Where we grew up, carols were referred to as bhajans, smiles Liddle.
In each family today, one can see the old meeting the new—generations-old traditions have acquired a different shape and form owing to technological advances and social change but the soul has remained intact.
Liddle, whose father was in the Indian Police Service, lived in different places while growing up. She shares a memory her mother has: When her elder daughter was three years old, the family was posted to Debendranagar, Assam. They were living in a tent, waiting for a house to be allotted. “He hadn’t got his salary for months and they were living on a budget. My mother somehow got a small cake and some duck to make a curry. However, a set of carolers came by on 24th and one simply had to feed them. So my mother gave them the cake. Fortunately, by the time I came along, we were more settled,” says Liddle.
Also read: Christmas 2022: A feast far away from home
Through the years, some rituals didn’t change, regardless of where they happened to be living. Her mother would always do the baking, using an heirloom recipe for the cake, preparing donuts and gujiyas. Her father, a keen gardener, would shift a potted plant into the house; this would then be decorated with streamers and cotton wool. Her parents had a large collection of LPs that contained carols. The records would be on since morning.
“Now I do the baking using the same recipe. The same things are made for lunch. We play the same carols—only not on LPs but off YouTube. The form might change but the core remains the same. And it is this continuity that is extremely comforting,” she adds.