For me, Christmas is about winding down the year with loved ones. The mood is celebratory and everyone is relaxed. But it’s also a time when malls and markets are teeming with people. The Christmas spirit seems to be waning in the frenzy of deals, discounts, gift grabbing and overindulgence. Having been in different European cities for the last three 25th Decembers, I was eager to find the true sparkle of Christmas in its purest avatar in 2017.
When I got an invitation for a 4-day road trip to Meghalaya for the ‘Wheels of Wander’ trip by Maruti Suzuki Alto and Outlook Traveller, I jumped at it. The dates matched perfectly. We travelled across Cherrapunji, Mawlynnong and Schnongpdeng during the run up to Christmas, and arrived in Shillong on 25th of December.
Shillong is a small town, with a big personality - especially during this festival. It is delightfully devoid of sprawling malls drooping under discount signage and shop fronts slathered in tinsel. Preparations start weeks in advance to present an exceptional potpourri of traditional food, carols, and fruitcake. Local bakeries overflow with people eager to have a bite of the seasonal delicacies. Christmas day is reserved for families to feast on homemade traditional dishes. In short, Shillong serves up a grand but authentic celebration.
It’s not only the food that gets attention. Christmas celebration in “the music capital of India” is a melodious affair. From carol singing to multiple live gigs, the city finds a rhythm in every corner. Numerous bands and artists play gospel music during this time. Even in homes and streets, people come together to sing traditional hymns and carols
We arrived in Shillong on Christmas day and headed straight to the central square of the town, Police Bazaar. Expectedly, it was throbbing with activity – people, food stalls, decorations and stalls selling toys and bric-a-bracs. I walked with my eyes glued to the bright décor all around till a loud cheerful ‘Merry Christmas’ jolted me out of my stupor. The selfie game was strong on that day, as decorated buildings became veritable backgrounds for shutterbugs. A makeshift selfie station had been set up to lure the camera crazy. Yuletide decorations and smiling Santa statues peeped from every corner. Rooftops and large trees were topped with bright stars.
Many families were hurrying and bundling up their children to reach the Cathedral of Mary for the midnight mass. There was no room to squeeze the mass, as prior plans to visit some of the cafes of Shillong were already made by the group. The musical lineage is Shillong’s banner statement, and we had planned to wind the day in a café with a live gig in action.
Shillong takes pride in being called the ‘Music Capital of India’; it would be blasphemous to leave the town without paying a pilgrimage to its music cafes. We started our hunt with Cafe Shillong, famous for pork ribs and weekly gigs by Lou Majaw, Shillong’s very own rock legend. With not an inch for anyone additional to enter, it had to be dropped from the plan.
Since tables cannot be booked in advance on Christmas, it would have been prudent to reach here much earlier. But we had weighed the idea against roaming the Police Bazaar, and that had seemed like a fabulous idea too. When visiting, take your pick between the markets, churches and cafes and stick to one plan to fully immerse in one experience.
Our day ended with an impromptu jam with The Cosmic Truth, Delhi based band and co-travellers on Wheels of Wander. We were outside City Hut Family Dhaba after dinner, and the festivities seemed to be winding down. It was a perfect time to re-inject some excitement. Guitars were brought out and the notes hit.
An elderly local gentleman corroborated our idea of Christmas by telling us how Shillong has always been a hospitable place for visitors, both during Christmas and otherwise. In fact, he mentioned how Shillong continually demonstrates a big heart on this day. Many locals visit orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals and even jails with food and other gifts. This is considered an important part of the Christmas tradition, and youngsters often bake cakes for the underprivileged or use money collected from carolling to buy them Christmas gifts.
The hues of Christmas in Shillong are something that I’ll always remember. It was an electric and inviting atmosphere, with carol singing, decorations and heartwarming hospitality – the perfect showcase of Shillong’s mood during the festival.