December marks the coming of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ which is celebrated all over the country, though Christians form only a little over 2% of the country’s population. There are of course Christian majority states in the North –East like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram besides states like Kerala and Goa with sizable Christian populations.
I have had the opportunity to live in almost a dozen states of India as a student and later on work. It was an eye opener during a three-month duty in Delhi in the 1960s when a majority of people considered me a ‘Madrasi’ and refused to acknowledge my home state of Kerala and mother tongue, Malayalam. People thought that I was a newly converted Christian with English as mother tongue! A large majority of them were unaware that I belonged to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world tracing origin to first century AD. Instead they thought that we became Christians after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 or after the whole country came under the British rule following the First War of Independence in 1857! Asked what they knew about Christianity, they would name Christmas celebrations comprising cakes, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, western clothes, dancing and boozing- all impressions gained generally based on the portrayal of Christian characters in Hindi films!
All what I remember of Christmas in my childhood in Kottayam is that it was not on 25TH December. We Orthodox Syrian Christians celebrated ‘our’ Christmas on 7th January by the time Christmas celebrations were long over for the rest of the Christian denominations. I realized later that during those days our church and Orthodox churches the world over followed the Julian Calendar , started during the reign of Julius Caesar in 455 B.C. The Western Churches followed the Gregorian Calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. While the west adopted the Gregorian Calendar the Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Even today, the Russian and some other Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to follow 7th January as Christmas day. The Indian Orthodox Church switched over to celebrating Christmas on 25th December in 1953. It is interesting that in that year the Church celebrated Christmas twice! The decree by H.H. Basalios Geevarghese II on switching Christmas day to 25th December was issued on May 14, 1953 by which time Christmas was already celebrated!
When I was in my early teens we had moved to our ancestral home on the idyllic banks of the Pamba river in Kerala. Christmas is preceded by the Advent and 25 days of Holy Lent during which period those who observed it strictly avoid non- vegetarian food, milk and milk products. This practice still continues. Incidentally some of the Eastern Orthodox churches observe strict fasting and do regular acts of charity. On the 24thDecember night the service used to start at the stroke of midnight and went on till sun rise. Looking back I feel that we gave more importance to the spiritual aspect of Christmas than outward show and pomp. In fact, there used to be hardly any streamers, Christmas trees or Santa Claus. The decorations and illuminations were confined to a star or a lantern made by we children out of bamboo and balloon paper.
Many of the traditional practices associated with Christmas originated in Europe adopted by Indian Christians after the arrival of European colonists. For example, the tradition of decorated and illuminated Christmas tree is considered to have started in the 16th century in Germany when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some people even built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens. It is also believed that Martin Luther led the Reformation movement in the 16th Century, again in Germany, who first added lighted candles to a tree. Today Christmas trees have become an essential part of Christmas celebrations. Initially, in parts of India where coniferous pine or fir trees were not available, branches of the casuarina tree were used. Today artificial Christmas trees, especially those folding ones, imported from China have flooded our markets.
Similarly the presence of the ubiquitous Santa Claus in Christmas festivities is a tradition associated with St. Nicholas. The saint is believed to have been a monk who was born in Turkey in the late third century. “He is considered a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well behaved children on the night of Christmas Eve [24 December] or during the early morning hours of Christmas Day [25 December]. The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical St. Nicholas [ a fourth century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra], The British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklass [himself also based on St. Nicholas]. There are also other legends attached to Santa generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man sometimes with spectacles- wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots and carrying a bag full of gifts for children”.
From the land of lagoons and backwaters [It was not yet called ‘God’s Own Country’ but it was indeed such a State then, unlike what it is today!] to the land of Fenny, Football and fun filled sunny, sandy beaches. It was five years after its liberation that I was posted in Goa. A month after reaching there it was Christmas. The fun loving Goan Catholics were all set to have a Bom Fest or a grand feast. The vestiges of 400 years the Portuguese rule were still very conspicuous. Panjim or Panaji did not look like an Indian city then but a quaint little European one.
Ladies in their western attire and men in suits were busy shopping in the beautifully decorated and illuminated shops with a European aura. Large number of bars and Taverns that dotted either side of the streets of Panjim were full of men young and old having a drink. The restaurants too were doing brisk business with men and women using spoons , forks and knives devouring pork vindaloo , beef steak, fried full pomfrets, stuffed mackerels or succulent large, wee bit savory sausages. Almost a vegetarian I found myself in a strange world very different from the puritanical Syrian Orthodox environs in which I grew up where alcohol or pork or beef were unwelcome.
The open air midnight Christmas mass at the Don Bosco School ground was very different from what I had experienced in my church back in my village. The choir was as good as any in the West. The western sartorial fashion of all the members of the choir appeared rather alien to me. However their singing in parts was superb. When the choir sang the immortal lullaby of German vintage ‘Silent night’ it was an ecstatic experience elevating one to that great Christmas feeling.
After a few Christmas seasons in Goa and Bombay I was in the Lushai Hills of Mizoram. Christianity there was less than a hundred years old and almost everyone was a Christian. Christmas and New Year were the only two festivals which were allowed to be celebrated by the powerful Church. At that time the observation of all the festivals or ‘Kut’ –like Chapchar Kut or Mim Kut of pre-Christian tribal times were considered unChristian by the Presbyterian church. Christmas and New Year therefore were celebrated with great gusto. Weeks before Christmas there were Christmas stars and lanterns all around. In view of the insurgency there was no midnight service in the local churches. However on Christmas Day there was sunrise service. The singing in parts in a Mizo church is divine. They sing traditional as well as Mizo version of English hymns and carols.
Today the Indian Orthodox Church also celebrates Christmas with other denominations on 25th December. Some have added turkey to their Christmas menu. Alcohol is no longer a taboo in many homes. Like all other festivals, the forces of the marketplace have made deep inroads into the community’s celebrations. I often wonder whether we have lost the real messages of all our festivals including Christmas which essentially have a spiritual angle, giving way to ostentatious celebrations. The primacy to spirituality which marked the observance of Christmas I experienced during my childhood seems to have dented. All the western trappings are evident in our churches and homes. Santa Claus looks like the mascot or the presiding deity of the universalized and commercialized Christmas celebrations. A number of my non- Christian friends are confused and ask whether Christmas is the birthday of Santa Claus who they think is a comical figure! The Patron Saint of children Saint Nicholas must be turning in his grave!
Today is Christmas and let the message Peace, Love and Joy be with everyone!