Celebrating Christmas in India
I have been educated in both a convent school and a Jesuit college. From childhood not only have I prayed and believed in Lord Krishna and Goddess Durga, but have also had immense faith in Jesus Christ as well. Because of this, Christmas has been a favorite holiday of mine as most Hindu festivals. In fact, it is not just me, the entire country of India celebrate Christmas with as much pomp and vigor as they celebrate Diwali or Holi.
Similarities between Christianity and Hinduism
For centuries historians have been giving examples of how Hinduism and Christianity are similar. Alain Danielou, the well known French historian said as way back as 1950 that Christ’s birth, as mentioned in the holy books, bears a striking similarity to the birth of Lord Krishna. Author Kersey Graves said that both were god men who could perform miracles (surprisingly one of the first miracles that both performed was to cure a leper) and had been sent from heaven to Earth in the form of a man to cleanse mankind of all sins. Also, although originally of royal descent, the human fatherof both who had adopted them had been a carpenter. In both cases a heavenly warning had been given that they would be killed by the local king soon after their birth.
Authors like Jacolliot and M. Guigniaut have also gone onto add that like Jesus, Lord Krishna might have been crucified, too. They have said, referring to the Gita, that the murderer of Lord Krishna had suspended his body from a tree for the vultures to prey on.
Other points of similarity also exist between the two religions. Hinduism is based on the core concept of the Holy Trinity – Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Protector, and Shiva, the Destroyer. An analogous concept is found in Christianity too – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In both, although each one of them is separate, all three constitute one God.
Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary. The Bible refers to Mary as a virgin at the time when she had conceived Jesus. A similar concept of virginity is also found in Hinduism – Devki the mother of Lord Krishna, Maya the mother of Buddha, and the mother of Rudra, the sun god.
Some other similarities are:
- The resemblance of the church to that of a Buddhist Chaitya
- The worship of relics
- Bells found in churches has been present in Hindu religion for centuries
- The use of incense
- The sacred bread in Christianity is similar to that of prasadam in Hunduism
- Reciting prayers on the rosary by Christians is similar to that done by Hindus on the japamala
- Finally the word Amen which originates from the Sanskrit word Om.
Although both have their differences, Christianity and Hinduism are bound in a sacred brotherhood. People of the two religions, are in fact, walking along different paths that cross each other once in a while, but ultimately converge at the single goal of respecting, loving, believing, and finding the Lord. It is therefore no wonder that India celebrates Christmas with as much gaiety and devotion as it does Holi, Ganesh Puja, Durga Puja, and Diwali. In fact, in most parts of India celebrating Christmas, or Bara Din, as it is more popularly called, has assumed a secular overtone with those from all faiths celebrating it with equal pomp.
Christmas Celebrations in Different Parts of India
Christmas in Delhi means huge trees and lots of sparkling stars that adorn the many malls.
The best market for shopping for Christmas decorations is Khan Market. Kirti Creations, a gift shop in the market, is popular for selling huge statues of Santa Claus, straw for creating the nativity scene in homes, neck ties with reindeer designs, and almost every decoration one can imagine. There was a time when they were known for selling real pine trees from the Himalayan mountains. Nowadays, the trees are usually imported from the Australian and the European markets. Christmas gifts, both Indian and imported from China, can also be bought at Janpath and at the INA Market.
Christmas in Delhi also means the German Christmas Market that is set up at the German House. It is organized by the German Embassy and began over 14 years ago, and each year it attracts over 12,000 visitors. Once can enjoy delicious food like homemade fruit cakes, sausages, freshly made waffles, and even beer and Glueh (a hot German wine). There is also a lit-up Christmas tree, with games, art competitions, lucky draws, magic shows, a live band, carols by the choir of the German School, and finally Santa himself distributing gifts to all the little ones.
Some of the other places where one can purchase desserts, chocolates, and cakes to give gifts are:
- Priced at Rs. 800 ($15uSD) onwards, Cupcakes at the Radisson Blu is popular for its eggless and cardamom cakes that are specially made for the Christmas season.
- The Daily Treats at the Westin in Gurgaon is specially known for their pumpkin cake with black pepper, blueberry sweetbread torte with five spice, and minced fruit tart. A customized gift hamper would cost you around Rs.2,000 ($37USD)
- Ye Old Bakery at the Claridges is most popular for its hampers consisting of the choicest cheeses, wines, and liquor chocolates
- Tivoli Garden Hotel at Chattarpur is popular for its Scottish Christmas cake with raisins and currants and made soft with Scotch whisky, butterscotch cakes, the fruity apple and pear, or the kiwi cake, semolina fig trees, and ginger bread house.
- From Rs. 80 ($1.50USD), the Cake Shop at the Hilton Garden Inn in Saket is popular for its plum pudding and ginger jam biscuits.
- Finally, homemade cakes are available in Cafeartaria in Lado Sarai for Rs. 100 ($1.85) and up. Some of the popular tastes include lemon, plum, banana, and carrot cakes. They prepare gingerbread men and chocolate brownies, too.
For Christmas lunch, some of the most visited places are:
- ITC Welcomhotel – Last year it showcased a Braille Christmas Tree. It was made out of Braille paper and surrounding it were mythological figures cut from leather. The gifts were wrapped with Braille paper and leaves of the mango and the peepal tree (both symbolizing good luck).
- Uppal’s Orchid and Meridian held a carnival for the young ones where not only was there a special Christmas lunch for the kids, but also dance, magic tricks, treasure hunt, and even a live Santa.
- Radisson Hotel celebrated Christmas last year with carols being sung in all its restaurants.
- The highlight at the Piccadelhi at the Plaza Cinema are a group of singers singing carols, face painters and tattoo artists, and finally a lunch comprising of roast turkey, Yorkshire pudding, and plum cakes.
- The Italian specialty restaurant, Tonino, on M.G. has a lavish Christmas day buffet with stuffed turkey, Christmas pudding with orange brandy sauce, and a live pasta and pizza corner.
- Added to these are some other five star hotels like the Hyatt, Intercontinental, and the Taj which always have a great Christmas day buffet for its guests.
All said, Christmas is never over without the midnight mass. So as the bells jingle on the roads, the churches bring in Christmas with the carols. The most popular churches for mass are:
- St James Church – This is the city’s oldest cathedral and the service here begins from 11.30pm
- Sacred Heart Cathedral – The mass here is the most well known and is attended by over a lakh every year. Last year the mass was held on the school grounds of St. Columba school, and the following day the church screened English and Hindi movies on the life of Christ on a 70mm screen
- Green Park Free Church – Other than the mass and carols that begin at 7pm, this church sets up a Christmas tree and everyone gets a chance to play Santa by leaving gifts for the poor and needy under the tree.
- Evangelist Baptist Convention Church – Before the carols begin at 8pm, volunteers help to clean up the church premise and also decorate the entire compound.
- St Stephen’s Church – Last year the church organized a procession that began at 10 pm and the Holy Communion started post 10.30pm. The following day a fair was held on the church grounds as well
Kolkata, the City of Joy, with its sizable Christian population, celebrates Christmas with a lot of gaiety and splendor.
The best place to shop for Christmas trees and the decorations is New Market (Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg’s market established in 1903) where many Santas with long cotton wool beards roam around greeting people and spreading cheer. This is the only time in the entire year that the market remains open on a Sunday. Most of the Christmas decorations are found stacked in temporary stalls at the center of the market. Ask for anything – mistletoe, bells, balls, stars, ribbons, stocking, hanging Santas – and it is there. You will also find trees of varying heights. While the small ones can be bought for as cheap as Rs.60 (~$1USD), the taller ones, which stand over 12 feet tall, can cost you around Rs. 750 ($14USD). Although most of the products being sold here are imported from China, many have begun to sell locally made products as well. Look out for Abdul Ghani who has been selling trees for more than 20 years and will give you the best price. And in any case don’t forget to bargain.
For the mass, the church to visit is the city’s largest cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, where carols begin at 10pm. Some other churches where midnight mass is held on a grand scale are St. John’s Church, Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, the Basilica of the Holy Rosary and the Don Bosco Catholic Church.
Another place to go for mass is the Mother House on A.J.C. Bose Road. It is the headquarter of the Missionaries of Charity and was founded by Nobel peace prize winner Mother Teresa. The Missionaries of Chairty also hold a feast for the orphans at the Shishu Bhavan on Christmas Day and is quite the place to be in to celebrate the birth of the Lord.
For Christmas food the most popular eating places are:
- At the Taj Bengal for around Rs.2500 ($46USD), you can enjoy eggnog and spicy cider with your buffet spread at the Hub or the Souk
- La Terrasse at The Grand has a very special Christmas day buffet lunch, complete with roast turkey in cranberry sauce and plum cakes for around Rs.3000 ($55USD)
- For around Rs. 1500 n($27USD), ITC The Sonar serves both a Christmas Eve buffet (which includes duck rillette, tenderloin with sesame oyster dressing, and mulled wine) and a Christmas day buffet (which includes Butterball turkey and grilled lobster tail)
- For around Rs.600 ($11USD), enjoy your wine, beer, and Paya Ka Shorba and Keema Ki Tahari, with Santa giving away gifts at the Five Rivers, and then head to Zauq E Shahi for your plum cake.
- For Christmas, The Afraa serves the very popular Mediterranean stuffed turkey with orange sauce and brie fritters with romesco sauce.
- At the Ego in Peerless Inn you can dance with Santa and enjoy games and a fashion show, too. Together with this, for Rs.2500 ($46USD) is a lavish buffet spread and unlimited cocktails as well.
- Not to forget the traditional roast turkey and rum pudding that is served in clubs like the Calcutta Club, the Tollygunge Club, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, and the Fort William.
While we are talking about food, the Christmas fruit cakes and puddings of The Nahoum’s, the famous old Jewish bakery in New Market, Flury’s, a tearoom on Park Street from the British-era, and Kathleen are some of the most renowned. Be prepared to stand in long queues for the goodies and do go there early as it all gets sold out in a few hours. Nowadays, Kookie Jar has also begun to gain a lot of popularity with their pudding in brandy sauce, dundee cake, and chocolate yuletide logs.
Not to forget the roads of central Kolkata like Bow Barracks, Sudder Street, and Ripon Street. These roads glisten during Christmas with rows of fairy lights and is also known for the aroma of homemade plum cakes, walnut cakes, rum soaked dry fruit cakes that the Anglo Indian community in this area bake for their close family and friends. Bow Barracks, close to the New Market, a row of six dilapidated blocks and home to over a hundred Anglo-Indian families since World War I, is especially known for the homemade fruit wines that are made during Christmas time.
However, if you are not in the mood for a sit down Christmas lunch, then do what most people in Kolkata do. Either:
- Head to the zoo, to the Victoria Memorial, to the sprawling green Maidan with your picnic basket and enjoy a lazy sun kissed winter morning amidst nature.
- Drive to Santiniketan which is around 5 hours away from Kolkata. Christmas is celebrated here, too, but in quite a different way. A musical performance is staged by the students and the teachers of Viswa Bharati’s Sangeet Bhavan, where Bengali versions of various Christmas carols are sung.
North Eastern States
North East India consists of seven states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Manipur. Although all celebrate Christmas, the ones where it is celebrated with the maximum grandeur are Nagaland, followed by Mizoram and then Meghalaya.
In Nagaland, where over 90% of the Naga population is Christian, the festive spirit sets in from the early days of December. Christmas, here is best celebrated in the villages with the tribal Christian communities performing dances and preparing traditional food. In Dimapur, the biggest town of Nagaland, the most important decoration is the star. The star, of various shapes and designs, are found hanging in churches, homes, and even shops.
In this state, where food plays a very important part, community feasting is done and the main Christmas feast is hosted by the church (like Kohima Lotha Baptist Church and the Baptist Church at Dimapur). Given the fact that Nagaland has around 16 tribes, each with its own church, there is a lot of variety in the food that is eaten. For example:
- Fermented soya bean, or axoni, as it is locally known, is the main feast food for the Sumi tribe.
- Gahlo, porridge made of rice and vegetables, moudi, made of beef and pork, and mithun (the state animal belonging to the bovine species that is specially reared without water) form the main food for the Angami tribe’s feast.
- For the Lotha tribe it is the pork with bamboo shoots.
- For the Ao tribe it is the anishi made of yam leaves.
Added to this is the preparation of Sümi sho, or Sumi bread, by most Naga villages. For this, pounding of rice into rice flour begins at least a week before Christmas. This is then mixed with water to form dough which is wrapped in banana leaves and boiled or steamed.
A Christmas game that is played in quite a few of the villages is hanging meat and money together from the top of a bamboo pole which teams have to climb up and fetch. The challenge is because the poles are greased with pork fat.
The Hornbill Dance, a local festival, also coincides with the Christmas celebrations. This festival features games, dances, songs, musical concerts, food, and rice beer stalls. The end of the day is symbolized by beating the locally made hollow drums made of logs.
Mizoram, where over 85% of the population is Christian, celebrates the festival with a feast that consists of rice, plantain leaves, and pork (which is a must-eat) and for gifts, the children of the family hang, or place, the thlang-ra, or a large plate, instead of stockings.
One market worth visiting during Christmas time is the Women Market. In this market most shops are controlled by women, and during Christmas is comes to life with colors, streamers, tinsel, and various Christmas decorations.
Locals in Aizwal, the capital of Mizoram, soaks in the Christmas spirit with streets decorated with snow men, Santa, cribs, reindeers, and carolers singing.
The churches to visit during Christmas are:
- Presbyterian Church
- Mizoram Baptist
- Roman Catholic
- Salvation Army
Finally, on Christmas Day, everyone from a locality gathers in their pre-chosen feast center to help with the preparation of the Christmas feast, or the fatu.
In Meghalaya, where the Christian community are mixed descendents of the British and the local Khasi and Jantia tribes, they bring in Christmas with musical concerts that begin at least a week before the 25th December. One of the most popular is the Shillong Chamber Choir.
As for the midnight mass, Shillong’s Cathedral Church, one of the oldest in the Northeast, the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians and the Grotto Church has thousands who attend the service. Also a box is placed within the church premises where devotees drop gifts for the poor on Christmas Day. This box is opened the next morning on Boxing Day to celebrate the Feast of St Stephen.
As in the other northeastern states, community feasting on Christmas day is popular and is known as Bam Khana Krismas. The most popular food during this festive season is:
- Dohneiiong – dark green pork dish that tastes of black sesame paste.
- Jastem – rice cooked with onion, turmeric and ginger
- Putharo – rice pancakes
- Jadoh Snam – rice prepared with pigs’ blood
- Jastem – rice cooked with pork stock
- Doh Shiang – minced beef cutlet
- Tungrymbai – fermented and boiled soybeans
- Brandy Christmas cake
Another tradition that is observed by every household is to beautify their homes with decorated pine branches. In fact, most homes decorate a real pine tree, which is found in abundance in Meghalaya during Christma.
Christmas in Mumbai means parties, homes of all religions lit up with fairy lights, twinkling stars or candles, and luxury hotels serving some of the best Christmas lunches.
- Corleone at the Intercontinental, for Rs.2500 ($46USD), serves a lavish Christmas buffet of roast turkey and Christmas pudding.
- For children, the Café Prato and The Pavilion at the Four Seasons, is the place to be.The hotel hires a Santa to give gifts to the little ones but also prepares Christmas specialties like oysters and honey baked ham. The per person cost for the buffet meal with a glass of the best champagne is around Rs. 3,500.
- At the Salt Water Café the Christmas buffet includes broccoli and almond-milk soup, lamb chops, and traditional Christmas pudding and roast turkey
- The restaurants and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel hold special Christmas brunches with live music in most.
- Added to these are the local clubs like the Bombay Gymkhana, where not only Christmas lunch is served, an annual Christmas party and even a Christmas Bazaar where homemade sweets are sold by the members of the club.
If you are looking to shop for trees and decorations then Hill Road in Bandra West or Crawford Market in South Mumbai are the places to be. The entire stretch of Hill Road gets filled with temporary Christmas stalls on both sides of the street, with a greater concentration around St. Peter’s Church and Veronica Road. These stalls not only sell the usual stars, bells, and trees, but also goodies like cakes, guava sweets, jelly beans, marzipan sweets, etc. These stalls are set up a fortnight before Christmas, and it is best to complete your shopping then because as Christmas gets closer the prices also tend to soar.
Like Kolkata, Mumbai too has a large Catholic population, and its churches are decorated with festive lights while beautifully adorned cribs welcome baby Jesus as choirs sing the carols.
- The most popular mass in all of Mumbai is held at the century old Mount Mary’s Basilica in Bandra. It begins with carols at around 11.30 pm.
- The Holy Name Cathedral in Colaba, which was earlier known as Wodehouse Church, holds a mass for over 3000 people. The carols begin around 9.30 p.m. but gets over a little before midnight because of the noise restrictions imposed by the government.
- At Saint Michael’s Church in Mahim the carols begin around 11am. However, for those who are unable to attend the mass should definitely try and visit it when the Novena takes place on the preceding Wednesday. The church is not only tastefully decorated then, but the pavement outside turns into an attractive market place.
- The Lady of Immaculate Conception at Borivali holds mass on its grounds that are attended by over 12,000 people.
If there is one place that you had to choose to spend Christmas in India, it undoubtedly is Goa.
A couple of weeks before Christmas the Goan markets get filled with decorations, people masquerading as Santa, and festive food. And on Christmas Eve a star made of wood and kite paper is found hanging outside each house.
A unique tradition within the villages of Goa is for someone to dress up as Santa and have a group of young girls with hollies in their hair to go from house to house singing Christmas carols to collect money. This money is used to prepare a Christmas meal for the poor and the lepers.
Another tradition among Goans is for everyone to gather in the house of the senior most member of the family on Christmas Eve for a dinner consisting of turkey, a pork dish, fruit cake, and port wine.
For tourists, too, Goa offers quite a few places where you can gorge on turkey in red wine sauce, baked ham, red snapper barbecued in banana leaf, and prawns. To end the meal are desserts like rum fruit cakes, caramel pudding, and Goan delicacies like bibnica, or layered cake, coconut macaroons, cocada, dodols, or cashew and coconut squares, neureos, or coconut rounds stuffed with dry fruit, and coconut nest, where strips of coconut dipped in sugar are designed to form a bird’s nest. Some places to head to for enjoying such meals are:
- Fiesta at the Baga beach
- O Goa in Panaji
- Spice Studia at the Arossim beach
- O’ Coqueiro in Porvorim
For a romantic Christmas Eve dinner by the river, by the sea or by the pool, the most popular options are:
- Vivanta by Taj at the Tamari restaurant
- Chilli ‘n Spice at Fidalgo
- Chung Fa
- Thalassa at the Vagator beach
- Souza Lobo at the Calungute beach
But if you are with kids then places for you are:
- Taj Exotica
- Caculo Mall
Not only will your kids get a chance to shake hands with Santa but can also learn to make paper lanterns, participate in cookie decorations, and sing carols too.
But Christmas in Goa is never over without attending the midnight mass or the Missa de Galo, or Cock Crow as it is traditionally called, at one of the various churches that is decorated with mango leaves, poinsettias, and candles. Quite a few, in fact, conduct the entire service including the hymns in the local Konkani language. Remember to be decently dressed for the occasion. Some of the well known churches that are adorned with stars and bells during Christmas are:
- The more than 400 year old Basillica of Bom Jesus that houses the remains of St. Francis Xavier
- Se Cathedral that is dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria. It is not only the largest church in India but one of the largest in Asia as well.
- Our Lady of Rosary, one of the oldest churches in Goa.
- The Reis Magos Church on the banks of the river Mandovi. The Feast of the Three Wise Men is held here.
- The Church of Mae de Dens at Saligao. This church, the locals believe, possesses magical powers.
- The Church of St. Anne
You can also visit the Kala Academy in Panaji or the Ravindra Bhavan in Margao, which holds carol singing competitions during this season.
The Christmas season officially ends on 6th January, and the day is celebrated as the Feast of the Magi with a procession and a church service in three places in Goa.
Kerala has a large population of Christian families. It is natural that Christmas is celebrated with a lot of pomp in the state. A surprising thing to note is that although most celebrate Christmas on the 25th December, there are a few Eastern Orthodox Churches who prefer to celebrate the day on 7th January instead, as this date corresponds to the 25th December according to the Julian calendar.
Among others, some unique Christmas traditions that can be found in this state are:
- The male members of the fishing families living in the hamlet of Tangasseri-Vaddy in Kollam city take out their entire family, including grandparents and even small children, in their fishing boats for the entire day on Christmas day. In the entire year, this is the only day that this is done. The ladies of the family pack up breakfast and brunch, and they leave on their boats at the break of dawn. They spend the day on these traditional sail boats eating home cooked food and singing carols. They even pray to the Lord on the boat itself. Sometimes, fleets of boats can be seen when all the relatives gather together to sing and pray on Christmas day. This trip actually symbolizes how hard the male members of the family have to work all year for their family.
- Another very interesting tradition is the hanging of stars outside each home during the Christmas month. These stars are of different colors, patterns, and sizes and they all have a space inside where a lighted lamp is lit and placed after sunset. Similar earthen lamps are also lit and kept on the terraces and in front of the main doorway during Christmas. This is very similar to the Hindu tradition during the festival of Diwali (the festival of lights)
- The churches in the state also witness a unique way of celebrating Christmas. A crib is made which symbolizes the stable where the Lord was born. Then, just before the Pathira Kurbana (in Malayalam, pathira means midnight and kurbana the Holy Mass) begins, the priest brings a small model or a picture of the baby Jesus, which is placed on the crib. This is preceded by a row of children holding a candle, which is placed surrounding the crib. Carols and songs in praise of the Lord then begin and the hymn Gloria in exelcis Deo is sung amidst the sound of crackers and fireworks.
In Trivandrum, the capital of Kerela, walk around the L.M.S compound to see the Christmas stars hanging from every nook and corner. Also don’t miss the Christmas shopping at the Palayam market and Chalai Market.
The most popular cake places at Trivandrum during Christmas are:
- St. Michels is one of the oldest bakeries. Their Christmas specials are fruit cake, rum and raisin cake, and Dundee cake. Added to this one should not miss tasting their signature Black Forest cake.
- Ambrosia that is run by Cuckoo Vinod. The specialities here are rum rich plum cakes with dry fruits and raisins and freshly baked crème cakes.
- Salt n’ Pepper that is run by Aashiq Abu, has become popular for its rainbow cake.
- The Christmas fair at Little Flower Hall. Here you will fins cakes of myriad shapes like a snowman, Santa, and even a Christmas tree, and many flavors like butterscotch, caramel, citrus, banana, coffee, walnut etc.
- The Taj – Green Cove and The Leela at Kovalam (an hour away from Trivandrum) hold their own cake mixing ceremony and are especially known for their plum puddings. The Leela also has its range of Christmas special cookies in flavors like cinnamon, chocolate, butter etc.
As for the midnight mass, the churches that are most popular are:
- St. Mary’s Cathedral at Pattom
- St. Joseph’s cathedral at Palayam
- Madre de Deus church at Vettukad
- Lourdes Forane Church near the PMG junction. In this church the Thee Kaykkal, or the fire warming ritual, is practiced on the 24th December. In this ritual the statue of baby Jesus is held by the priest near the fire that symbolizes, as per folklore, of the robin that had fluttered its wings near a fire to keep the baby Jesus warm.
Not only these cities, but all of India celebrates Christmas with joy and gaiety, and it continues to remain a festival that is celebrated by all religions across the land.
Photo Credits: Part 1 – Photo Credit Fenetresurlinde (Holy Trinity in Hinduism), Part 1 – Photo Credit Tim Schmitt (Baptism in Christianity), Mjanich, Part 1 – Photo Credit Prince Roy (Buddhist Chaityta), rajkumar1220, Delhi – Photo Credit Niyam Bhushan, Kolkata – Photo Credit Dwaipayan Chakraborti, Nagaland – Photo Credit Rajkumar, Meghalaya – Photo Credit T. Saldanha, Mizoram – Photo Credit Rajkumar, Philip Tellis, Josephdesousa, Kerala – Photo credit McKay Savage