Gifts, carols, good food, Christmas trees- it's the time to celebrate already. If you haven't experienced Christmas celebrations in India, you're missing out. Outlook Traveller brings to you five top destinations in the country where you must experience Christmas at least once in your lifetime. Merry Christmas!
If there is any Indian town that can compete with European towns for Christmas celebrations, it is probably Shillong. Preparations begin weeks ahead as shops and bakeries stock up on decorative items and cakes and other goodies for sale. The local people are fond of music and snatches of strumming guitars will reach you any time of the day. As Christmas approaches, carol singers start visiting neighbourhood homes, sometimes stopping by at shops and street corners to let their mellifluous tunes warm up the cold evenings. Yule-tide decorations and smiling Santas welcome the shoppers. Take a walk around town to look at the illuminations and the crib decorations. In Police Bazar and adjoining areas, see how the unknown artists create beautiful patterns to huge decorations using simple fairy lights. Homes are decorated with stars, buntings, Christmas trees, etc. Looking their best, people attend midnight mass. More singing happens through the night and the next day. On Christmas Day, sitting down for family dinners, spending the day with friends, offering gifts and goodies to the underprivileged, keep the people busy.
Other north-eastern states, such as Mizoram and Nagaland, are also pleasant destinations to visit during Christmas.
Kolkata, West Bengal
Once the capital of British India, Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was called then) has expanded its colonial legacy to include a more cosmopolitan look. People cut across faiths to celebrate the yuletide cheer. So all those traditional bakeries working their ovens over time to feed the city with fruit cakes could be run by Muslims, the queues in front of Flurys and Lalit Great Eastern bakery may have more of Hindus, the Jewish Nahoum’s age-old showcases stack rich fruit cakes, which has traditionally been known as Christmas cakes in Kolkata. Meanwhile, kitchens at the old clubs, such as Bengal Club or Calcutta Club, get ready to spread the legacy menus for their members. As Christmas approaches, the lanes around New Market (Hogg Market) overflow with hawkers selling everything from Christmas decorations to trees to Santa costumes. Carol singers, who had been practising for weeks at their neighbourhood churches, begin visiting the parish homes. Churches are illuminated and cribs set up. Park Street, which has been a traditional place to go for festive dinners, now happens to be the most attractive part of the city, decorated with fairy lights and illuminated displays. Allen Park, in the corner, turns into a fair ground, with more decorations, crib displays depicting the Nativity Scene, choir singing and food stalls; local Anglo-Indian families sell home-made goodies. If you are looking for a more understated yet jubilant celebration, you may visit the Bow Barracks in central Kolkata, home to the city’s fast dwindling Anglo-Indian population.
If you have time to spare, you may visit the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel, about 60km by road from Kolkata. Darjeeling is also a good place to celebrate Christmas; chance of a white Christmas is not remote.
While Christmas in most Indian cities and towns have fallen prey to a noisy, commerce-induced celebration, this former French colony and now a Union Territory of India, lying snug along the Tamil Nadu coast, is the place to go to if you are looking for some low-key but charming celebration. The town, divided into the French and Tamil quarters, stand like two islands bound by Yule-tide cheer. Shops selling Santa Claus, Christmas decorations, goodies aplenty usher in the celebratory mood. Go around some of the older churches, including The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (The Church of Our Lady of Angels), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, to see the illumination, including the lit up Christmas trees. The French legacy of artistic expressions are evident in the elaborately designed Nativity scenes. On Christmas Eve, both locals and expats are seen heading to the churches for Midnight Mass. Expect the sea-fronted boulevard to be crowded with visitors during Christmas holidays.
If you have time to spare (and weather permitting), a visit to the New Jerusalem Church at Tharangambadi (the former Danish colony of Tranquebar) — a little over two hours’ ride from Pondicherry - or a visit to Our Lady of Good Health Church in Vailankanni — about four hours’ drive away — can be an interesting experience.
With most of the ‘gaothan’ of Mumbai falling victim to urban sprawl, repair to the few that remain to enjoy traditional Christmas celebrations. One of them is Ranwar village in the heart of Bandra. Just before Christmas, take a walk down the road from Mount Mary’s Basilica in Bandra, a diversion through Ranwar village, and up to St Peter’s Church. Churches sprucing up; roadside hawkers selling Christmas trees, Santa Claus, baubles to decorate the tree, candies and other goodies; the small bakeries making batches of fruit cakes; East Indian families in Ranwar decorating their homes with star kandils, etc. — vignettes that will get you into the mood for Yule-tide. Most of the popular markets, including lanes around Crawford Market in Colaba, turn choc a bloc with shops selling Santa caps, trees and an immense variety of gleaming decorations. Mumbai is home to some grand-looking churches, such as the Holy Name Cathedral, the Afghan Church, St Thomas Cathedral, the Gloria Church, and of course Mt Mary’s Basilica. While their Midnight Mass draw the faithful, a large number of people gather around them during Christmas to enjoy the decorations, especially the cribs and the illuminations. It is also a good time to sample the delicious spread offered by many of the popular restaurants, cafes and bakeries.
Daman, around four hours’ drive from Mumbai, with its old Portuguese churches and beaches, is an excellent place to spend a Christmas vacation.
To the uninitiated, it may seem that the members of the fishing community of Kollam are out for a joy ride in the sea on Christmas day. But later the local people will tell you it is not a joy ride but the enactment of an age-old tradition, when the family elders would take the younger generation in the boats to introduce them to the sea. Usually, most leave after having a family sit-down meal but some may carry it along for a picnic lunch. A picturesque town on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam has some fine churches, including the Infant Jesus Cathedral, located in Tangasseri, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2014.