Nothing much has changed in Goa since the French adventurer François Pyrard de Laval spent the holiday season here over 400 years ago.
“All the streets are then hung with lanterns,” he writes, in the account of his escapades first published in 1611. “On Christmas Day, in all the churches are represented the mysteries of the Nativity, with diverse characters and animals. Everyone goes to see it. Even in most of the houses and at the cross-streets they do the same; it is a prettier sight at that season there, than here (in Europe).”
Rocket forward into 2021 and I feel exactly like that long-extinct Frenchman. After long decades assimilating in the great cities of the West, where I have experienced one hyper-commercial Christmas after another in Paris, London and New York, it is my firm conviction that the end-of-the-year celebrations are unbeatably gracious and meaningful in this ancient slice of the Konkan coastline. To be sure, there isn’t nearly as much gloss, but that is more than made up for with bonhomie and genuine joie de vivre. Best of all is that there are no bounds to the happiness. Everyone of every age from every community shares the fun in full measure. Joy to the world? It is the very essence of Christmas in Goa.
“Nobody is left out of the holiday spirit here” says Damodar Mauzo, the beloved eminence of Goan letters, who sparked state-wide exultation when he won the Jnanpith Award—the paramount recognition for contributions to Indian literature—earlier this month.
The great Konkani littérateur spent decades operating his family’s general store in the South Goa beachfront village of Majorda, and every 24th December evening without exception, he says, “I used to close it to go visit my Catholic friends—at least 10 homes—and enjoy the seasonal sweets. My favourite is dodol (the jaggery and coconut milk cake that came to India centuries ago from South-East Asia) but I also love cakes like that made by (his friend and translator) Xavier Cota’s wife.”
Mauzo recounts how his family participates in all the details of the celebrations in their village: “Of course, just like all our neighbours, we hang a Christmas star in the balcao. My daughters really love this time of year, and when they were growing up, they would always make the crib. After they grew a bit older, they too would sometimes accompany the other children to Midnight Mass, and enjoyed it very much.”
The various customs that Mauzo is describing comprise the heart of Goan social culture across every sectarian divide: an extensive range of painstakingly handmade delicacies, adults and children taking the time to crisscross their vaddos (village wards) to visit their neighbours and friends, and the wonderful creativity and craftsmanship spilling over from every household—during Ganesh Chaturthi it is the matoli (ceremonial canopy) of fruits and flowers, then the Narakasur effigy on Diwali, followed by cribs and stars in December.
At Christmas, in addition to all this, there is an apex event. Everything and almost everyone comes together on the night of the 24th to enact the part-solemn, part-giddy-ritual excitement of dressing your best and trooping to the parish church for the music-filled service to usher in the nativity. It only ends in the wee hours of the 25th but no one heads home despite the chill of the December night air. Instead, there are only warm embraces, greetings, lashings of coffee and slices of cake.
Every bit of that is open to everyone, and what is true of the Mauzos in Majorda plays out identically across Goa. Here, the boundary walls between ostensibly different religions have remained conspicuously low, with neighbours unselfconsciously sharing the same universe of meaning in ways that can be incomprehensible to outsiders.
The acclaimed American anthropologist Robert Newman, who first visited Goa in 1965, soon after the defeat and annexation of Portugal’s 451-year-old Estado da India, and has proceeded to study the state for decades, writes that “though in content the Catholic and Hindu traditions differ greatly, in form and style they have tended to move together over the past few centuries in Goa. There has emerged a specifically Goan style, which has helped forge a common Goan identity despite religious differences.”
Newman notes, “This development has been more pronounced among the lower castes, but large numbers of higher-caste Hindus and Catholics also take part in certain key religious festivals, worshipping and honouring the same deities—in particular, the goddess Shantadurga and several versions of Our Lady.”
This deep-rooted syncretism permeates all aspects of Goan faith practices and can come across as surreal, even contradictory, by adherents to orthodoxy. Nonetheless, its powerful purchase is undeniable: All important feasts and festivals at every major site of worship in the state are thronged by sincere devotees of every background. Limitless co-mingling is an archetypical feature of the culture, readily evident in music, architecture, food, and every artistic flowering.
Here, we have the salutary examples of the great Goan painters of the 20th century, like Francis Newton Souza, the livewire modernist who kick-started the Progressive Artists Movement in Mumbai in the 1940s, whose paintings of altars bristle with tantric symbology. His close contemporary, the great abstractionist Vasudeo Gaitonde—the two friends shared ancestral roots in North Goa—considered himself a non-denominational follower of St Francis of Assisi.
Perhaps most illustrative is the unique bridge figure of Angelo da Fonseca, the grandee from the island of Santo Estevam, who studied at the colonial JJ School of Art in colonial Bombay around 100 years ago but quit—and transplanted himself to Bengal—because he “wanted to be a shishya of the best Indian artists of the time”. By the end of the 1920s in Santiniketan, he was the prized protégé of Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore and spent the next four decades (he died in 1967) painting an astonishingly beautiful oeuvre of Indian Christian iconography that draws deep from Islamic, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist themes as well as the Western canon.
Fonseca’s artworks effortlessly represent East and West simultaneously, with great harmony. They are the perfect icons for Christmas in highly cosmopolitan Goa, where many other conventions have evolved out of borrowings from around the world, that are derived from centuries of functioning as one of the earliest crucibles for what we call globalisation.
In her excellent Cozinha De Goa: History And Tradition Of Goan Food, the historian Fátima da Silva Gracias writes about the emblematic consoada (the original Portuguese word has become Kuswar in Konkani), where families labour for weeks to prepare “a plethora of sweets and savories”. These are meant to “be sent in small quantities on a tray—a little bit of everything prepared in the house…covered with a tray-cloth made of crochet or lace. Those who received it sent back sweets prepared by them.”
Gracias notes that the festival lunch is usually “sumptuous”, with “Goan, Malayan, Portuguese and Anglo-Indian recipes blended together”. In addition, “Christmas confectionery here draws from diverse cultures—Portuguese, Indian, Arabic, Malaysian and Brazilian. The Hindu ‘food of the gods’ also has its own influence in the form of nevreo, kulkuls and shankarpalis.”
All this would have been perfectly recognisable to Pyrard de Laval from the early 17th century, when he wrote about “tables laid with fine white napery, and covered with all manner of sugar-plums, dry comfits, marchpanes, which they call Rousquillos, fashioned in a thousand ways”.
But if all these things are unchanged, what is different in Goa in 2021?
Like everywhere else, less time and more distractions have diluted the intricate cultural fabric. There has been a huge influx of settlers from other parts of India and the world, most of whom do not care to participate, and often resent what they perceive as native insularity. The Goans themselves have scattered wildly, and though they do reconvene in substantial proportions at Christmas, it is often in an array of hybrid identities: Kiwis and Canadians and Bomboicars sharing the table.
Personally, I embrace it all.
As far as I am concerned, it is perfectly suitable that the world comes to Goa at Christmas, because Christmas in Goa encompasses the world with great felicity. When my sons set up our tree at home, they adorn it with cherished reminders of family scattered on four continents, and our own travel memories from Assam to Kashmir and several countries. We listen to holiday music in Konkani, Latin, German and Spanish and reserve cult status for Run-DMC’s rollicking rap classic, Christmas In Hollis.
Come midnight at Christmas Eve, you will generally find us in Fontainhas, the centrepiece of Old Panjim, for Midnight Mass in the street in front of the ancient St Sebastian’s Chapel. In this gorgeous Latinate atmosphere, all the surrounding houses set out hot drinks and snacks for celebrants to share afterwards.
There is laughter, camaraderie and good feelings that last right until the following year. You can keep your Rockefeller Center and Regent Street. Nothing beats Christmas in Goa.
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.