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Unique Christmas Celebrations of India


Christmas is one festival that has become a part of Indian social fabric and is celebrated all over India as if it belongs to each community be it Hindu, Muslims or Sikhs. It has taken a form of a social festival rather than religious. In this article we have tried to cover some of its unique celebrations across India and also how Christmas influences its food and music during the festive period…..

Christmas in Kochi

Christmas celebrated in Kochi (also known as Cochin) is known for three reasons. First, the famous Cochin Carnival coincides with the festival. The carnival begins before Christmas and ends in the New Year. Second, singing of Christmas carols is not limited to churches alone. The singing commences before Christmas and continues up to New Year’s Eve. Third, on New Year’s Eve, Santa Claus’ mannequin is burnt in Kochi which showcases the burning of the past and complimenting of the new. A big Santa’s mannequin is also burnt on beach by the organisers of the Cochin Carnival.

On this occasion, if one also wishes to witness the age old charming Indo-European church service, then he should attend the Midnight Mass at Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica. Another church that takes you back into history is Saint Francis Church. Once, at the site, Vasco Da Gama, a famous Portuguese explorer, was buried. Then, one should also try the family Christmas breakfast that consists of traditional beef stew which is eaten with bread or appam (a kind of pancake). It is the head of the family who is responsible for serving the stew. A number of families in Kochi also brew wine on this occasion. Some of them make wine in excess for commercial reasons.

Christmas in the Indian State of Goa

You may not know, but the most exciting Christmas celebrations happen in the Indian state of Goa and it is also the most favourite of the festivals celebrated in the state. During Christmas one will find the main streets, lanes and by-lanes bustling with people, old and young, men and women and even transgender who come out to celebrate the festival of joy that marks the birth of Jesus Christ. Old women, referred to as aunties, distribute sweets to their neighbours and friends around. In fact, the festivities are more intensely experienced in the old areas of the state’s capital, Panaji (also known as Panjim). These areas constitute what is known as the Latin Quarter of Goa. The traditional houses built in the 1800s and coloured in pastel shades along the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Panaji are brightly lit up with traditional Christmas decorations that include the Christmas paper star, ribbons, banters and other wall hangings. If one wants to get a real feel of the Goan Christmas that one should visit the Venite Restaurant and enjoy a sumptuous dinner just like the locals and quite non-touristy do on the eve of Christmas. After the dinner comes the most awaited part of the festival, the Midnight Mass at Saint Sebastian’s Chapel where thousands of Christians and non-Christians gather to celebrate the birth of the Lord. After this Mass which is a sight to behold, there comes another phase which may be witnessed nowhere else in the world, when people greet each other in multiple languages such as Portuguese, Konkani and English. When one walks through the streets, lanes and by-lanes of Panaji, there is a social norm when people display on the tables set outside their houses for serving Christmas cakes and coffee to all the passer-bys and not only to the ones whom they know.

Christmas in the Indian State of Meghalaya

The beginning of Yule time in the city of Shillong is essentially marked by selling of holly by the women from nearby villages. They can be spotted selling the same in baskets made of hollow stems of plants such as bamboo at the busy intersection of Motphran. During the Christmas season, the shopping activity at Police Bazaar, the main market of the city, gains momentum. One can be there either to shop or to witness the adorned main intersection located nearby. Here, traditional foods such as doh jem (a preparation of meat), putharo (rice cakes cooked by steaming), jadoh (a preparation of rice and meat) and doh sniang nei-iong (a preparation of pork and sesame) constitute an integral part of the Christmas celebrations. Home cooked versions of them are par excellence. Even so, their counterparts can be enjoyed in a local eatery. Next, the special food preparations from Garo are mainly pork based. They include wak pura, chambil wak and khappa. A local Garo sweet dish, sakin gata (a cake preparation of sticky rice) is particularly enjoyed during the Christmas. Also, during this festive season one can expect serving of, almost across Shillong, a few varieties of cakes with tea.

Carol singing of Shillong is extremely famous. Not only Khasi version of the traditional English Christmas songs, but also certain original compositions can be enjoyed here. Then, the festival of Christmas is celebrated in the Garo Hills in a unique manner. Every village in the region constructs its own phasa, i.e., a structure resembling a hut, which acts as the centre for the celebrations.  The villagers gather here to sing Christmas songs in Garo to the traditional drums’ beats. The area celebrations are also well-known for tall Christmas trees.

Christmas in the National Capital Territory of Delhi

People of Delhi usually visit Sadar Bazaar for economical Christmas shopping and Khan Market in order to witness the festival decorations.  While local Christians bake Christmas cakes at their homes, others have to depend on the many confectionaries selling them. Talking about the cakes prepared at home, first their ingredients are bought from Khari Baoli. Next, the component items are mixed well at home. Thereafter, the mixture is taken to small bakeries for baking. Nevertheless, one can also enjoy this homemade version of the cake by simply contacting certain suppliers for the purpose.

One should visit the Cathedral Church of Redemption on Christmas Eve for the Midnight Mass. Besides being a heritage site, it is situated in the President’s Estate. Cakes and coffee are served after the Service. The foods associated with the festivals of North India influence the Christmas preparations in Delhi. Thus, one can expect to enjoy gujiya (a kind of pastry) Indian version of a puff pastry), a dish particularly associated with the north Indian festival of Holi, during the Christmas season. Then, at this time of the year Mughal cuisines take priority over the delicacies of the amalgamated Indo-Gangetic culture of the northern belt of India. That is why Yakhni Pulao (a kind of pilaf) is considered as an important Christmas dish.

Christmas in the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry

There are a few very old shops in Puducherry (also known as Pondicherry) famous for Christmas shopping. Certain local food manufacturers from Auroville are particularly known for their Christmas cakes and the associated assorted varieties. While in Puducherry, the French influence can be felt everywhere as the place was once ruled by the French. Thus, on the occasion of Christmas, many French restaurants serve the relevant specialities. Concurrently, one can also come across French products being sold outside the big church of Puducherry.

Christmas in Mumbai

Mumbai (also known as Bombay) is hit by the Christmas festivity much ahead of the event. By early December, one comes across shops selling Christmas stuff flooding the city locations of Bandra’s Hill Road, Malad’s Orlem and the neighbourhoods of Borilvali’s IC Colony. They can be spotted selling plastic trees, Santa hats and various shapes of marzipan. During the season, a comprehensive view of certain churches such as Mount Mary’s Basilica in Bandra, Holy Name Cathedral in Colaba, Gloria Church in Byculla and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Chembur offers a fascinating display of the local Christmas celebrations. Then, through witnessing carol singing in the city’s churches during evenings, one can also become a part of the early celebrations. Interesting Hindi, Marathi and Konkani versions of the carols can be enjoyed in a number of churches.

Formally, Christmas celebrations in Mumbai start after the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The Services are held at vast grounds by certain churches that yearly witness a large crowd. In order to stay within the 10 pm deadline for loudspeakers’ usage, they start their Services at 8 pm. One should try arriving at the venue much before as the seats get quickly filled. Then, on Christmas day, all the churches in Mumbai remain open for Services almost the entire morning. One need not regret, in case he, on the occasion, cannot become a part of a local family lunch or dinner. He can purchase a ticket for a night-long Christmas dance, dress well, and get himself a dancing partner. All the clubs in the city organise the event. Nevertheless, in order to experience the associated true Christmas spirit, one should contact and accompany a member to the Catholic Gymkhana on Marine Drive, the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana in Santacruz, or the Bandra Gym.

Christmas in Kolkata

Christmas celebration in the city of Kolkata (also known as Calcutta) is a unique blend of various local Indian ways of celebrating the festival. The commencement of the Christmas season in the city is marked by the commercial exchange of festival decorations at stalls set in New Market. Although mouth-watering varieties of Christmas cakes are sold by several good confectionaries of the city, yet the cakes of Nahoum and Sons are considered by many as unparalleled. The Anglo-Indian families of Kolkata additionally prepare tasty treats such as Rose Cookies and Kulkuls (a kind of sweet snacks). In order to enjoy these homemade items one either needs to be acquainted with such a family or should be able to persuade someone belonging to the like family to offer the same for a certain amount of money.

In fact, one can easily buy such goodies from the residents of the area of Bow Barracks, largely occupied by Anglo-Indian families, in Kolkata. These families also arrange a week-long celebration of the festival in the area where all are welcome irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

Kolkata is also known for clubs.  Unlike other cities of India where the club members are essentially the ones who come from a wealthy background, several clubs in Kolkata have members belonging to the middle-class as well. Christmas parties are held in almost all of them. Except at Dalhousie Institute which has a number of Anglo-Indians as its members since inception, the Christmas party at many clubs is generally held on Christmas Eve. At Dalhousie Institute, the party celebrations are held after the Midnight Mass. On this occasion, a visitor can also, by getting in touch with one of the members of the clubs, become a part of the Christmas party. The state government of West Bengal has been, since past few years, arranging celebrations extending from Christmas to New Year at Park Street. Then, certain institutions and restaurants like Mocambo and Peter Cat at old Park Street are flooded with merrymakers. Also, a round the year popular breakfast hub at Park Street known as Flury’s is a must-visit on Christmas and New Year.

Christmas in Bilaspur

Until the last generation, every Anglo-Indian family of the city of Bilaspur had been associated with Indian railways. In fact, in the past, many Anglo-Indians in the country served Indian railways. Once, an old institute or club of the city was run by the Anglo-Indian Association of Bilaspur. It housed a dance hall and had adequate provisions for playing games such as billiards, snooker, cards and others. Then, the celebrations of Christmas and New Year were held at an impressive level in the institute. Recently, Indian railways took over the place and converted it into one of their offices.

Till date, Christmas Ball is arranged by the Association. Then, during the ball, the music associated with Jim Reeves and country songs is still played in the background and ladies attend the event dressed up. Also, old Anglo-Indian cherished eats such as mulligatawny soup, yellow rice and ball curry are served at this social event. A visitor can also become a part of the Christmas celebrations associated with similar old railway colony clubs provided he contacts a member and hands out to him around Rupees 400.

Christmas in the Indian State of Jharkhand

In the town of Ghatsila, Christmas is, more or less, a silent event. There are two churches located in Moubhandar, namely, Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church and Grace Union Protestant Church. On the occasion of Christmas, both the churches not only are beautifully lit, but also play recorded Christmas songs in Sadri and Hindi. To listen to such pleasing compositions would be a remarkable experience for someone familiar with the English versions. Then, on the occasion of the festival delicacies such as different varieties of cakes and arsa pitah (a sweet dish) are prepared. Their counterparts, however, of fruit and plum cakes can be relished at the ICC Bakery. The bakery also, on request, prepares other festival specific dishes. Then, picnics are arranged at certain locations near Ghatsila such as the Subarnarekha river bank, Burudih Dam, Galudih barrage and Purnapani. While in town, one may consider visiting them. Christmas celebration in the city of Pakur is almost similar to the one of Ghatsila except that the festivity here is easily communicable.  Must-visit house of worship of city is the Bengali Methodist Church and its surrounding area of the Jidato Mission campus.

Some Traditional Indian Christmas Foods

Once, on the occasion of Christmas, the dining tables of the families of Kochi-in the state of Kerala-were almost occupied by duck curry prepared in vinegar, potatoes and coconut milk, pork roast, a fried ‘chicken roast’, koorka ularthiyathu, i.e., Chinese potates and peanuts, pomfret in coconut milk, red rice, plum cake and appams. Nowadays, across India, unique and distinct delicacies are prepared in the households of various Indian communities. The platter, usually, consists of an exceptional blend of the festival specific traditional regional and international foods. Notably, the Christmas food of Syrian Christians of Kerala is influenced by the Dutch, Portuguese, British, Arabic and perhaps Chinese cookeries. Then, the Indian chefs also draw on inspiration from their respective family methods to prepare relevant culinary delights.  Next, the local festive dishes from Goa in India are known for their richness. They include shrimp pilaf with prawn wafers and pork roulade with roast potatoes.

Today, plum cake has acquired the status of being the characteristic Christmas food in India. Besides being gifted to India by the British, the dish exceptionally cuts through the many diverse communities of the country and unites its citizens in the spirit of Christmas. Then, it is also a popular confectionery item of the country besides crunchy kulkuls, cashew-based marzipan, guava cheese, rose cookies and coconut stuffed neurios (curved sweet puffs stuffed with coconut). In fact, Allahabadi Christmas Cake of Bushy’s bakery in Prayagraj (also known as Allahabad) is the noteworthy version of the plum cake from India. It is prepared from petha (a dessert made from pumpkin), murabba (a kind of sweet fruit jelly), ghee (a kind of clarified butter), fruit peels, nuts and garam masala (a mixture made from spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom).

At Mangaluru (also known as Mangalore) in Karnataka, on the occasion of the festival, mainly coconut flavoured rice laddoos (a kind of Indian sweets made of rice and coconut), jaggery and cardamom powder are served. Then, the local communities of Mumbai are known for the occasional serve of Mangalorean pork curries such as pork bafat and indad. Next, during the festive season, Goans, East Indians of Mumbai and Catholics from Mangaluru offer traditionally a platter of homemade sweets known as kuswar to guests and loved ones. However, in the recent years, commercial variety of kuswar has gained prominence. East Indian kuswar typically includes milk cream, date rolls and thali sweets (sweets served on a metal plate).

Many of us know that turkey is the most popular Christmas food item worldwide. Similarly, Christmas food preparations in Goa is characterised by the inclusion of pork. Here, during Christmas lunch, primarily, pork sorpotel (a pork dish)-following cooking, it is kept aside for a month to develop flavour-or vindaloo (a hot spicy curry) is served. In addition, food items such as sanna (a spongy, fermented rice bread), prawn pulao (a prawn pilaf), chicken cafreal (a kind of spicy chicken food), stuffed pomfret or mackerel with recheado masala (a masala paste for stuffing), beef or chicken roulade and an array of cutlets may be included in the meal.

Next, on Christmas, at the dining tables of the Catholic East Indian community, young roasted pig stuffed with chorizo, bread, vegetables and liver holds the spotlight. In fact, the Christmas dishes of Mumbai share a lot in common with their Goan counterparts. Despite the situation, there exist certain minor differences, such as the use of a unique blend of almost thirty spices known as bottle masala. The cause of such subtle differences may be attributed to the dissimilar cultural backgrounds of the places. While the former bears a mixed influence of the English and the Portuguese cultures, the latter, primarily, displays the influence of the Portuguese culture.

Distinct Christmas food items are prepared by each tribe of the state of Nagaland. However, the delicacy of pork barbecue or pork curry is, on the festive occasion, cooked unanimously by all the tribes. The preparation of this common delicacy includes the usage of fresh bamboo shoots, kidney beans, akhuni (a fermented soybean food) or anishi (colocasia) with a yam base. Another version of the dish is prepared through treating fish, meat and rice stuffed in bamboo vessels with steam for a considerable period of time. Following this, other Christmas specialities of the state include Naga rice soup and dry bamboo shoot salad.

Christmas Songs of India

During Christmas, the church choirs across India can be usually witnessed singing a certain number of hymns in one of the regional languages of the country.

Till date, many Indians associate Christmas music with Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolf, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Mary’s Boy Child. Other, but little known, compositions are also seldom heard. The little common belief of a majority of Indian Christmas songs being almost a reproduction of their Western counterparts is maintained amongst the countrymen. However, the truth is far away from this held opinion.

In the local churches, throughout the year, supplementary divine music can also be enjoyed in the regional languages. Yet, the same almost does not hold true with regards to the songs sung on the occasion of Christmas.

As a matter of fact, traditional Christmas songs are, until the present time, enjoyed across the world. In India, novel relevant compositions are in moderate demand. Two reasons can be attributed to the fact. First, it is hard for one to part from the traditions associated with the festival and second, being a yearly celebration, none feel dissatisfied hearing the relevant customary songs again.

Next, Christmas is celebrated with great enthusiasm in the Indian states of Nagaland and Mizoram. In these states one can hear some of the best church choirs of the country. Their brilliance is majorly ascribed to the weekly and, at times, daily proper practice.