An Indian Christmas

December 21 19 Comments Category: Blog

Christmas in India, a predominantly Hindu nation, is a very interesting festival.  The country is so diverse, with a myriad of cultures each with its own language, food, clothing, and traditions, that I am always loath to describe any part of it for fear of suggesting a generalization that doesn’t hold true for the rest; I suppose that’s so for most countries, but it does loom larger in the face of 21 full-fledged languages and hundreds of dialects and traditions.  Many religious holidays are observed throughout the country; Christmas is one of them. This is remarkable in a nation where over 80 percent of the population is Hindu and less than 2 percent Christian. India is constitutionally committed to being a secular State, but displays great flexibility when it comes to celebrating and honoring religious festivals and holidays.

I wonder if the Indian propensity towards incessant celebration stems from an eastern perspective, where socialization seems much more central than a work ethic; in fact, “work” is woven into the social fabric of the culture.  In America, we schedule our social events; in India they make up the daily fabric of life—work is scheduled within the social recesses (although that too is changing now). In any case, despite the reported religious strife in India (I don’t mean to make light of it, but religious fanatics are everywhere–hunched in alleys like arsonists ready to ignite and fan the fundamentalist flames of discord) most Indians live peaceably in relative communal harmony.  Ancient cultures have hammered out a tolerance on the anvil of centuries of futile strife, except where geographical barriers or power-hungry politicians interfere!

We celebrated the Hindu feasts of Diwali (festival of lights, complete with fireworks, oil lamps, and sweets) and Holi (dousing one another with colored powder and water), the Muslim month of Ramadan (breaking the daily fast at sundown at Muslim restaurants was a delicious treat), and sundry other religious observations. My circle of friends included Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsees, which meant that I could wander with gastronomic delight through a calendar year. The added benefit was that the food not only varied by religious affinity but also by geographic origin—Hindus from the Punjab cooked a different meal from the Maharashtrians (the state in which Mumbai is located).

Everyone loved Christmas, particularly in Bombay with its relatively large Christian population, not just because Christians had a reputation for being great cooks, but also because one associates dancing with the feast, remnants of a colonial past.  Throughout the city on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve (and often during the week as well) there were large ballroom dances—formal, jacket-and-tie, outdoor affairs that lasted through the night.  The dance floor was created by spreading huge tarps, chalked over to allow for smooth waltzes, foxtrots, jives, tangos, etc., as large as eight tennis courts ringed by hundreds of merrymakers at tables under awnings festooned with bunting. There were live bands and comperes, and the roistering, bolstered by many bottles of liquor, grew progressively louder as the wee hours approached.  With the temperature in the balmy sixties and no rain, this was also the wedding season, with more opportunities for revelry! Various hotels promoted their own Dances and Socials, so it seemed like the whole city twirled through the entire week.

The music was a mixture of jazz and pop dance standards, although these days it is Bollywood influenced.  We started on Christmas Eve with a midnight mass, then home for some cake and wine (my mother insisted we come home for the first celebration), then we were off to party with friends, returning in the wee hours for a brief shut-eye before the family lunch, visiting or being visited by a few friends and relatives, then heading out to The Dance at 9 pm. Christmas was a special day for me.  I would announce in the morning that I was not responsible for anything that happened during the day, in anticipation of some adventure or other—and very few years disappointed.  Buy me a drink and I will regale you with tales embellished beyond recognition or probability!

It didn’t snow in Bombay, but so much of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” rings true to me:

“Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again.”

And of course there were Christmas sweets.  Christians in India have various communal/geographic affiliations, with food being one defining difference; sweets, toffees, and other treats made from coconut, marzipan,  jaggery, milk, almonds, cashews, and raisins; cakes and soufflés; with indigenous names, the mere mention of which makes my mouth water—kulkuls, neoreos, cocada, dodol, nankhatais, bolinhos, and halwas, to name a few.  Even as I type these names, MS-Word underscores each of them in red, the poor ignorant, uneducated, deprived beast!

Ah, where is the flavored delicacy of my youth?  All that’s left is this shriveled carcass of a man, he says with characteristic disingenuousness!   A Merry Indian Christmas!



19 Responses

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  1. Hola Kim I can relate exactly to your Christmas, it was almost 100% similar to mine. I whish I could go back to the old country.

    Oscar 21 December 2011 at 7:25 pm Permalink
  2. Can’t really go back, Oscar. But I know what you feel.

    kimpereira 21 December 2011 at 7:33 pm Permalink
  3. This post makes me hungry. And also wondering what the hell is parsnip wine.

    Mimi 21 December 2011 at 10:56 pm Permalink
    • Ah, people will make wine from almost anything…my mother used to make wine from beets!

      kimpereira 22 December 2011 at 2:35 am Permalink
  4. Kim,
    You captured the flavours of India beautifully. The communal harmony part was nice. Your American friends must be just waiting for a taste of not just the delicacies but India too.
    Merry Christmas


    Edwin Fernandes 22 December 2011 at 5:03 pm Permalink
    • Thanks, Ed. They and I.

      kimpereira 22 December 2011 at 5:25 pm Permalink
  5. Hi Kim,

    Enjoyed walking with you through the memory lane of yesteryears in dear old Bombay. Besides the sweet-making at home, I enjoyed carol-singing round the neighborhood (in my youth) and also singing in the choir for midnight Mass.
    Wish you and the kids an abundance of PEACE, LOVE, GOODWILL during Christmas and all thro the New Year.


    Mercy Fernandes 22 December 2011 at 7:29 pm Permalink
    • Ah, the carols. Wishing you and yours as well, Mercy.

      kimpereira 22 December 2011 at 7:31 pm Permalink
  6. Kim,

    Thanks for the wonderful nostalgic write-up that transported me to our life in India. That was true diversity unlike the lip service that our society in the US pays to so called diversity.

    Chris Braganza 23 December 2011 at 12:48 am Permalink
  7. I was just telling Brendan today that it is the responsibility of the adults to pass on culture we love to the young so that it may live beyond our lifetime. Thus it seems that your responsibility, wonderful cook that you are, to whip up a batch of kulkuls, neoreos, cocada, dodol, nankhatais, bolinhos, and halwas, make sure Kieran and Leisl have the recipes, and send out little boxes to your friends . . .

    Thomas Cavano 23 December 2011 at 4:31 am Permalink
    • Hmm…maybe one of these years, eh?

      kimpereira 23 December 2011 at 12:21 pm Permalink
  8. thanks for this kim, i always wondered how influential christmas can be, even to the primarily non christian countries.

    i have friends that celebrate Christmukka with their kids, which i think sounds super fun…lol. other religion’s/country’s holiday festivals are fascinating to me, mostly cause well, i only know the ones i was raised with. 🙂

    britt 24 December 2011 at 2:31 pm Permalink
  9. H’lo Kim,

    Brings back wonderful memories of the Bandra and Catholic Gymkhana dances; us belting out carols on ‘the stones’to the strains of Edu’s guitar; visiting ‘well-experienced-in-sweet-making’ aunts and rudely polishing off their gastronomic delicacies pretending not to notice the disapproving and disgusted look from my father; gazing up in wonder at the street star competitions in Mazagaon; listening to the Mascarenhas soloists (viz. June and Vera) at Midnight mass, notwithstanding Roland’s version of ‘O Holy Night’; pound parties, particularly one at Mercy’s where to my utter horror my father arrived on their doorstep at 1 or so in the morning in his pyjamas, just at the point where lights were turned low and demanded to know what we were doing and that we (Maryanne and I)leave immediately…..mind you, everything was very innocent and above board too and we were having a whale of a time.

    Fortunately, we do have wonderful parties and sing-songs down-under too, with some exceptionally talented musicians, along with hectic sweet-making with friends, some of which include the traditional marzipan, milk cream (never as good as Lorraine’s), kul-kuls, dodol and ‘dos’-last couple made in the microwave but just as good, so I guess all is not lost….yet!

    I loved your comment on the wonder of MS Word to the point where I will store it for future recall.

    Merry Christmas to you, Liesl and Kieran, Kim and may 2012 be kind to each of you.

    Keep very safe,


    Pam 25 December 2011 at 8:54 am Permalink
    • Hi Pammy: Amidst so many receding memories, some will always be around to want the aging cockles:-) Much love–Kim

      kimpereira 25 December 2011 at 2:56 pm Permalink
    • A prcvaootive insight! Just what we need!

      Melissa 25 October 2016 at 1:11 pm Permalink
  10. Very nice, taking us back to the ‘good ole days’. Even in Canada, those of us of Bombay/Goa origin, still make culculs, marzipan, neorios, etc. Christmas is not the same without these.

    Doreen Pereira 26 December 2011 at 4:24 pm Permalink
  11. Kim,that was so true..dying to sip mum’s parsnip wine,can’t wait to buy u that drink so i could be regaled with those tales. I’m nostalgic about my tiny Christmas tree i put out each year & thanks for mentioning my favourite poet. Yes,do not go gentle into night! Luv, Anu

    Anuradha Shah 30 December 2011 at 4:30 pm Permalink
    • Thanks, Anu. Wine and Dylan Thomas somehow seems appropriate.

      kimpereira 30 December 2011 at 4:42 pm Permalink
    • This inrtoduces a pleasingly rational point of view.

      Millie 25 October 2016 at 1:22 pm Permalink

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