Christmas in India, a predominantly Hindu nation, is a very interesting festival. The country is so diverse, with a myriad of cultures each with its own language, food, clothing, and traditions, that I am always loath to describe any part of it for fear of suggesting a generalization that doesn’t hold true for the rest; I suppose that’s so for most countries, but it does loom larger in the face of 21 full-fledged languages and hundreds of dialects and traditions. Many religious holidays are observed throughout the country; Christmas is one of them. This is remarkable in a nation where over 80 percent of the population is Hindu and less than 2 percent Christian. India is constitutionally committed to being a secular State, but displays great flexibility when it comes to celebrating and honoring religious festivals and holidays.
I wonder if the Indian propensity towards incessant celebration stems from an eastern perspective, where socialization seems much more central than a work ethic; in fact, “work” is woven into the social fabric of the culture. In America, we schedule our social events; in India they make up the daily fabric of life—work is scheduled within the social recesses (although that too is changing now). In any case, despite the reported religious strife in India (I don’t mean to make light of it, but religious fanatics are everywhere–hunched in alleys like arsonists ready to ignite and fan the fundamentalist flames of discord) most Indians live peaceably in relative communal harmony. Ancient cultures have hammered out a tolerance on the anvil of centuries of futile strife, except where geographical barriers or power-hungry politicians interfere!
We celebrated the Hindu feasts of Diwali (festival of lights, complete with fireworks, oil lamps, and sweets) and Holi (dousing one another with colored powder and water), the Muslim month of Ramadan (breaking the daily fast at sundown at Muslim restaurants was a delicious treat), and sundry other religious observations. My circle of friends included Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsees, which meant that I could wander with gastronomic delight through a calendar year. The added benefit was that the food not only varied by religious affinity but also by geographic origin—Hindus from the Punjab cooked a different meal from the Maharashtrians (the state in which Mumbai is located).
Everyone loved Christmas, particularly in Bombay with its relatively large Christian population, not just because Christians had a reputation for being great cooks, but also because one associates dancing with the feast, remnants of a colonial past. Throughout the city on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve (and often during the week as well) there were large ballroom dances—formal, jacket-and-tie, outdoor affairs that lasted through the night. The dance floor was created by spreading huge tarps, chalked over to allow for smooth waltzes, foxtrots, jives, tangos, etc., as large as eight tennis courts ringed by hundreds of merrymakers at tables under awnings festooned with bunting. There were live bands and comperes, and the roistering, bolstered by many bottles of liquor, grew progressively louder as the wee hours approached. With the temperature in the balmy sixties and no rain, this was also the wedding season, with more opportunities for revelry! Various hotels promoted their own Dances and Socials, so it seemed like the whole city twirled through the entire week.
The music was a mixture of jazz and pop dance standards, although these days it is Bollywood influenced. We started on Christmas Eve with a midnight mass, then home for some cake and wine (my mother insisted we come home for the first celebration), then we were off to party with friends, returning in the wee hours for a brief shut-eye before the family lunch, visiting or being visited by a few friends and relatives, then heading out to The Dance at 9 pm. Christmas was a special day for me. I would announce in the morning that I was not responsible for anything that happened during the day, in anticipation of some adventure or other—and very few years disappointed. Buy me a drink and I will regale you with tales embellished beyond recognition or probability!
It didn’t snow in Bombay, but so much of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” rings true to me:
“Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again.”
And of course there were Christmas sweets. Christians in India have various communal/geographic affiliations, with food being one defining difference; sweets, toffees, and other treats made from coconut, marzipan, jaggery, milk, almonds, cashews, and raisins; cakes and soufflés; with indigenous names, the mere mention of which makes my mouth water—kulkuls, neoreos, cocada, dodol, nankhatais, bolinhos, and halwas, to name a few. Even as I type these names, MS-Word underscores each of them in red, the poor ignorant, uneducated, deprived beast!
Ah, where is the flavored delicacy of my youth? All that’s left is this shriveled carcass of a man, he says with characteristic disingenuousness! A Merry Indian Christmas!