Growing up as a kid in the early 2000s in India came with its fair share of festivals and exposure to different subcultures. Although I loved the rich colours of Holi and the way cities dress up in dazzling lights during Diwali; ‘western’ occasions like Halloween, Easter and Christmas always seemed to draw me towards them with a child-like fascination. Little did I know that festivals like Christmas are celebrated equally enthusiastically by many communities in the country, and the traditions vary from each other. Christmas for most non-Christian Indians living in the country doesn’t go beyond huge colourful trees, Santa Claus and snow, but in recent years, things have changed. The jolly festival is a month-long season of lights and colours, of giving and receiving, of cakes and carols and angels and of course, the beloved Santa.
It’s no secret that Indians love bright, happy colours as is evident from how we celebrate our festivals—and Christmas is no exception. Local stores, markets, and malls are draped in multicoloured and twinkling fairy lights, paper streamers, and flowers. Churches are decorated using stunning light shows and look spectacular in the night. Snow is virtually non-existent (except in hilly regions) but that doesn’t deter children from draping cotton wool all over their trees to imitate snow-covered evergreens. Unlike the US, giving and receiving gifts during Christmas isn’t as common, so you might not see a shopping frenzy in the last few days before the day. Most families have a big lunch and an even bigger dinner with deliciously spicy and fragrant family recipes like tandoori chicken, grilled fish, and rum cakes coming out in the fore. On Christmas Eve, people attend the midnight mass and listen to the gospels in church.
In Christian households, preparations for Christmas begin at least a month in advance. People get their homes whitewashed and indulge in spring cleaning of the house to give it a fresh new look and then decorate the Christmas tree and decorate the ‘crib’ where the infant Jesus was born. You’ll always find a star in every Christian home you visit. It holds a very special meaning for them.
Local cultural influence has a lot to do with how this festival is celebrated in different areas of the country. From Kerala to Assam, from the Northeast to Bombay, the whole country gets together in festive spirit to celebrate in their way. For example in the South, similar to Diwali, clay lamps are lighted on rooftops of the houses by Christians. Since we live in a tropical country, instead of using a pine tree to decorate, a banana or even a mango tree is often considered traditional. In Northwest India, Christians of the Bhil tribe sing their equivalent of carols night after night. Mumbai, which has one of the largest Roman Catholic communities in India, there is a tradition to depict nativity scenes and decorate houses with big, shiny stars.
In Daman and Diu, the festival has a different charm and is celebrated with a Portuguese flavour. With the varieties of cultural shows organised here, enigmatic Corrindinho Portuguese dance forms, vibrant lamps brightening the night sky, and implausible church service, it is by far one of the best places to spend Christmas day.
Winter is probably the best time to visit Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The place adorns itself in the festive mood and what is most interesting is the celebration of Christmas with a tribal touch. Midnight mass is organised in all local churches and the people celebrate with pomp and grandeur. The entire Union Territory fizzes with warmth, zeal, and enthusiasm.
Kolkata, the city of joy, joyfully embraces Christmas celebrations. Park Street comes to life with lights and stars and decorations that just hit the Christmas vibe. Streets are lined with pubs and bars that remain open all night long. The St Paul's Cathedral organises a midnight mass and the sweet sound of carols can be heard reverberating from quite some distance. And further down at the bow barracks, the Anglo-Indian communities celebrate in their traditional style.
The most exhilarating celebration of Christmas can be seen in the vivacious state of Goa which has a large population of Christians. Its architecture and culture still retain the influence of Portuguese rule. Catholics in Goa participate in the traditional midnight mass services locally called Missa de Galo as they go on well into early hours of the morning. The state of beaches, partying, and exuberance celebrates Christmas with the same enthusiasm as other festivals.
In Kerala, children carry candles and visit the houses in their neighbourhood in groups, singing carols. Elaborate scenes of Nativity can be seen outside the churches, which are lit up with bright lights. The sky bursts into colours at night when beautiful firecrackers are lit. You can feast on elaborate traditional dishes for Christmas like Neyyappam, Kappa biryani, and stew, which are prepared along with homemade wine and, of course, plum cake. Since Kerala is a coastal state, the cuisine heavily features seafood.
Mumbai, the city of lights and stars, shines when Christmas comes around. A place with a buzzing nightlife and energetic spirit, Mumbai’s street and houses are lit up with bright lights and decorations. People from all walks of life enjoy the spirit of Christmas through all hours of the day. Market areas and shopping malls are decked up and offer attractive discounts. Mumbai’s many fabulous markets transform around this time of year to cater to all of your Christmas shopping needs – from Christmas trees and decorative ornaments to Santa costumes.
One of the most peaceful places in India, Pondicherry is known as the French town of India. The quiet, serene town lights up with bright decorations and the festive atmosphere of Christmas. The beautiful architecture, clean, breathtaking beaches, and the quintessential French cuisine make it a favourite with those who want to celebrate Christmas somewhere different. One can almost taste the anticipation in the air as the town gets decked up with the arrival of Christmas.
Shillong celebrates Christmas with a lot of pomp and gaiety for an entire month. The scenic beauty and cool ambiance of this town is broken by extensive decorations and lights. Families feast on homemade traditional Christmas dishes with a touch of local flavours. The Cathedral Church is the oldest one in North East India, and people from all over the region visit. People are clothed in traditional garbs and an infectious atmosphere full of warmth and happiness is ever present. Numerous bands and artists play gospel music during this time. One can hear the soulful music in the churches as well.