Christmas in India – A Reminiscent Account

As of this year 2009, I have had to spend the past two Christmases at Houston away from my family. Being nostalgic, I have been reminiscing quite a bit about my childhood Christmases in India. Below is an account of how Christmas in my part of India used to be. I will write a succinct account of festivities within the broader culture, then within the Christian circles, then within the Church and finally within the Christian homes.

First, about the festivities in the broader culture outside of the Christian-circle. Unlike the Christmas in the States, Back in India, we do not have radio stations playing Christmas songs all of December. Neither do we have ‘Happy Holiday’ bill boards or TV ads. Shops don’t have Christmas lights unless the shop is owned by a Christian. Some non-Christian owner will also have lights if he wants his shop to appear cool and trendy to his customers. The Human Resources managers in some Multi-National companies in cosmopolitan cities use the Christmas opportunity to have X’mas parties and spread some cheer among the employees to make them ‘feel good’ about the companies they work for. Of course, who wouldn’t like the Santa and chocolates and gifts. Shops and malls in bigger cities which have huge Multi-National corporations try to catch in on the wave of ‘spreading cheer’ to – why miss an opportunity to make people feel good and buy more (no rocket science there!).
Now, about the festivities within the Christian circles… When we were kids we lived in a densely populated residential area. During Christmas season, the Church choir will come singing Christmas carols to each of the Christian homes after 10:00 pm. The choir would go on from house to house till 3:00 am in the morning.
It is done this way because Jesus was supposedly born at night, secondly
because this way they can make sure that there is someone at the house
to answer the door. It doesn’t matter if someone looses a little sleep
one day a year during Christmas season, after all it is CHRISTMAS. They go knocking on each of the Christian houses and sing a carol song, then receive an ‘offering’ (contributions of money) and then move on to the next house. They have a Santa and chocolates and huge portable halogen lights… This group does what they do not to spread the Gospel, but to uphold a tradition. No matter what their motives, the kids in the houses really enjoy it. I remember when I and my sister used to be kids, we would hear the carols being sung at some house at the other end of the street and will eagerly wait by the window. And when the carol comes to the house adjacent to ours, our hearts would be thumping. They would come to our house, we would open the door and stand there. Everyone will be looking at us, we will be looking around shyly, the Santa would shake our hands and dance. When the song is over, the Santa would give us chocolates and someone would extend an offering box and my sister or I would place the offering. One year, my sister and I heard Christmas carol choir and we waited by the window, wide awake, but alas just a few houses ahead of ours the choir decided to call it a night. Needless to say, we did ‘lose some sleep over it’. 🙂
On one Christmas season, the Hindu lady adjacent to our house told us that she too would like for the Santa and the Carol Choir to come to her house, but that it never happened. My mother being the creative enterprising lady she was, had an idea. She asked me to get all the kids in the homes on the street our house was on, Christian and non-Christian. There were like 15 of us. We got one of the taller non-Christian kids to wear my mother’s red night robe and we had a Santa mask that came handy. We tied a pillow around the belly under the robe so that the Santa looked fat enough. My mother gave us chocolates and told us to go to all the non-Christian homes in our street to sing carols. We were to give chocolates, but not collect offering. I can’t forget how the Hindus living on in the houses on our street were overjoyed. I can’t forget that night. Of course, we were sensible enough, we started at 7:00 pm and were done by 9:00 pm.

The ‘tradition upholding’ Christian carol group apart there are some truly ‘compassionate’ Christian carol groups that, instead of going to Christian homes to collect ‘offering’, go to poor villages in the ‘suburbs’ and sing Carols in each of the non-Christian homes. They don’t take offering. They in true spirit of Christmas give gifts to the poor people. As a child, going for Christmas carols around the poor villages were awesome experiences.

Then there are some committed Christians who’ll have a Christmas party at their house or at a party hall and invite their non-Christian friends. They would invite a Christian speaker to share the gospel so that the Hindus will have a chance to listen to the gospel at the excuse of the party. In fact, the Christians in my company at India had one such party, you can see the photos here http://picasaweb.google.com.hk/wilsonjust/EkkattuthangalPrayerFellowshipChristmasCelebration?feat=email. It was conducted in a Church near our company. The ones sitting in the pews are Hindus, you’ll notice that some women wear the ‘kunkum’ on their foreheads (If fact, it is based on this Hindu tradition of wearing the ‘kunkum on the foreheads that the phrase ‘dotted India’ came about, as against the ‘feathered India… if this makes no sense, never mind). 🙂
Then there are the Church festivities in the Church.  Most Christmas services aren’t Christmas eve services (as in the States), the Indian Christmas service starts at 4:30 am on the Christmas morning. The tradition being that Christ was born early in the morning, so we too have to be in Church early in the morning (if you are keeping count by now two nights of sleep is gone in the Christmas season :P). Anyways all those inconvenient traditions that bring meaning to life! 😀

Churches have massive decorations, lights all around, along the edges of every wall,  along the ridges of every section of the roof, all the way up to the Church spire. Some Churches have huge lighted stars hanging all along the way from the residential areas to the Church. As people go to the Church, it is symbolic of the Magi following the star. Every Christian house would have a huge lighted star hanging in front. In fact, you can walk into any street and count the stars and you’ll know the number of Christian homes in the street. The starts are generally huge colored paper stars with light bulbs within that make the star glow brightly at nights. Of course, there were were rivalries and jealousy among kids as to whose star looked the best!

All Indian Christians wear a new dress for Church on Christmas day. During Christmas service, the amount of gold the Indian ladies wear to Church would be more than any Bank would have in its lockers. Of course, in some sensitive areas there is police protection as well. Church service would get over by 6:00 am.

Then there are the festivities within the Christian homes. Of everything else, it is these festivities at my home are the ones that I miss the most. 😦 On Christmas day, as soon as we come home from Church, 6am-ish, we would have a brief family prayer. As soon as this was over, at about 7:00 pm, my sister and I, when we were kids, would run to the street to burst fireworks (crackers). In India, we did not have to get city permission for fireworks. Like folks in the US have ‘gun rights’, Indians have ‘firework rights’.

A HUGE part of the festivities of Christmas rested on my mother’s shoulders because the most important part of Christmas festivities would be sharing delicacies with non-Christians. My mom would have started planning for Christmas meal, the ‘Biriyani’, more than a week prior to Christmas. ‘Biriyani’ is a South Indian delicacy that is very rich in spices and tastes great to the South Indian pallet and it takes lots of preparation and a lot more patience. On Christmas day we would give Biriyani and Christmas cake to the non-Christian homes in our neighborhood and those not in our neighbourhood. My mother would prepare Biriyani in a 10 gallon cooking basin. We would hire a handmaid in addition to the full-time house-help to assist my mom with the cooking for this occasion.

Remember, before we went on this detour about the details of cooking, my sister and I were playing with fireworks starting 7:00 am. Of course, there would be friendly rivalries and jealousies among kids about who had the best collection of fireworks. Kids!!! Well, at about 11:00 am, my mother would call us and give us parcels of food to go and give to the non-Christian homes. My sister and I run to each of the houses nearby, to give food, the sooner this was done, the sooner we would get to have our Christmas lunch.  In fact, the non-Christians would be eagerly awaiting for my mother’s special Christmas Biriyani. I loved this part of my contribution to Christmas festivities, because it was the simplest, and more importantly because it was more rewarding, I got to see the happy faces of people. So by the time we are done with this it would almost by 2:00 pm. Then we would have the most tasty meal of the year. I would patiently eat for about an hour. Then have a peaceful sleep until evening. Christmas would be done. 😀
I miss those good ole days… so much that I cannot help but make a cheesy attempt at writing poetry.

Oh, the irony of life that when Good times pass-by
We know them to be ‘Good’ only after they have past us by.
But the gift of life are the sweet memories
Of the reminiscences of the Good.
Ironies of ‘This Life’ point to the Truths of the Next.
Past-taste of Good times gone by is the irony.
Past-tastes of the Good times, in Truth,
Are Fore-tastes of the Next Life!
For all things Good are subject under Christ,
After He ushered in a new Kingdom, at the first Christmas.
And every Christmas since endeavors to be a celebration of all things Good
In the Culture at large, in the Church and at the Homes of Christians!

Author: Emmanuel R Paulpeter

I am a writer, spiritual director, life coach and a Church Planter who love all things pop culture, theology and spirituality.

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