Christmas 2017 and 2018
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While Christianity likely came to India as early as A.D. 52, when St. Thomas is believed to have evangelised and been martyred in the southern parts of the subcontinent, Christmas as such did not arrive until European colonists and missionaries arrived in the 1500s and following. Today, there are some 24 million Christians in India, most of them concentrated in the northeastern hill country, the tiny coastal state of Goa, and in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This only amounts to 2.3 percent of India’s 1.5 billion or so people, however, and Christmas is barely celebrated at all in central and northern India. Nonetheless, Christmas is kept in the areas with large numbers of Christians and is even celebrated by non-Christians living in those regions.
For Roman Catholics in India, and even for some of other denominations, midnight Christmas Eve services are highly traditional. After mass, a large feast will be enjoyed by the congregants, including authentic Indian curry dishes, and gifts will be exchanged. Many churches also decorate their premises with poinsettias and make the midnight service a candlelight service.
In South India, instead of Christmas lights illuminating houses, small clay lamps are often laid on rooftops (which are usually flat) to represent Jesus as the Light of the World. In Northwest India, the Bhil ethnic group go carolling to neighbouring villages for a whole week to retell the story of Christmas in song to all they meet.
In heavily Catholic Goa, celebrations are greatly influenced by Portugal, which once owned the state as its colony. Nativity sets are seen at nearly every Christian house in town, and large, star-shaped paper lanterns are put out to be seen by passers-by and remind them of the star that once brought the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus. There is also a tradition of making large amounts of sweets in a “consuada” just before Christmas and then delivering them as gifts to neighbors. Traditional sweets include: Christmas fruit cakes, “neuros,” which are small fried pies stuffed with dried fruit and coconut meat, and “dodol,” which is a kind of toffee treat infused with coconut and cashews.
Homes of those celebrating Christmas in India will often have “Christmas trees” of sorts, but they will probably be ornately decorated banana or mange trees. Mango leaves may also be seen in other decorations around the house. Santa Claus, often called “Father Christmas,” makes it to India to reward children with presents, provided they were well behaved the previous year. However, he delivers these gifts, not in a reindeer-pulled, flying sleigh, but in a horse-pulled cart.
Indian Christmas Activities
Should you travel in India at Christmas time, three activities you may wish to partake of include:
- Visit Mumbai (Bombay), which has one of the largest Christian populations of any Indian city. The lights and lanterns are an amazing sight as you stroll through town. You will see many nativity sets as well, and if you attend a midnight mass, you can join in to discover what Indian Christmas food tastes like. Mumbai also has plenty of malls and shops for you to do your Christmas shopping at.
- In cities in all the regions with significant Christian populations, you can visit hotels and local restaurants for a Christmas buffet. You should expect to be served traditional foods like roast turkey, but there will also be a mix of specifically Indian dishes for you to sample. International luxury hotel chains are especially likely to offer you such a “complete Christmas meal.”
- Attend the Kolkata (Calcutta) Christmas Festival, which occurs between December 16th and January 2nd every year. There will be food stalls, cultural exhibits, and carolling and choir singing. The climax, however, is the parade that comes down Park Street, which is beautifully adorned with lights and all manner of Christmas decorations.
Visiting India for Christmas, provided you visit those regions where Christmas is celebrated, will allow you to see how Christmas is kept in a land where Christians are a minority. You will also see how the traditions brought in by Europeans have been sometimes modified and sometimes left unchanged. The food and festivities will be both enjoyable and educational.