India, Christmas in

India, Christmas in

Christians make up just over two percent of the population in India. Nevertheless, Christmas is a national holiday and many Indians who are not Christian still observe some of its folk customs. These include the lighting of many oil lamps along the perimeter of one's courtyard or the edge of one's roof. Indian Christians borrowed these lamp-lighting customs from a Hindu holiday known as Dewali. The task of filling and lighting the lamps often falls to children. Some families also paint Christmas symbols and images on the walls of their whitewashed homes with powdered dyes. These pictures may include the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi, or shepherds. The cooking and sharing of special foods is another widespread Christmas custom, although the dishes may vary from place to place. Gift giving and carol singing also take place in many Indian communities at Christmas time (see also Christmas Carol).

Bengal

Christians in Bengal focus their anticipation on Christmas Day church services. Boys and men gather regularly to practice the music for the Christmas program. Women clean the home. This cleaning includes giving the walls a fresh coat of whitewash or clay, and decorating the house with marigolds, leaves, and brightly colored paper. Girls make decorations for the church, such as paper chains and chains of marigolds.

On Christmas Eve boys and young men gather at the church, festooning it with palm branches, wreaths, garlands of marigolds, and paper chains. Then they set up a Christmas tree just outside the building. Afterwards they go caroling.

On Christmas Day Bengali Christians enjoy special foods, such as fruitcake, dates, oranges, raisins, coconut-filled rice cakes, fried rice, and meat with curry sauce. Children often deliver plates of these special Christmas foods to their friends. Worshipers, decked out in new clothes if possible, pack Christmas Day church services. Services generally include a sermon and choral music. After the conclusion of the service the congregation crowds around the Christmas tree for the distribution of gifts. Poorer members of the congregation can expect gifts of new clothes, and children receive trinkets from the Sunday school.

Many Santals live in the state of Bengal. These tribal people celebrate Christmas for five days. Girls dance up and down the streets and sing songs. Boys also take to the streets, entertaining the public by playing instruments. Onlookers often treat the boys and girls to fried rice and tea after their performances.

Kerala

In the southwestern state of Kerala many Christians belong to Eastern churches, like the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Coptic Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Abyssinian Church. Others are Roman Catholic. The Eastern churches observe somewhat different rites than those observed by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. For example, those belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church observe Advent by fasting. For the four weeks preceding Christmas they abstain from eating meat, fish, and milk products.

In the last week before Christmas, many Christian children in Kerala spend an evening singing Christmas carols from door to door. They carry with them candle-lit lanterns hanging from the ends of poles (for a similar custom, see Star Boys). These beacons, raised aloft, cast a warm glow on the band of roving musicians who visit the homes of those who work at the church schools. Many decorate the outsides of their homes with oil lamps during this week.

People gather at churches on Christmas Eve, where celebrations begin, accompanied by ringing bells, exploding firecrackers, and pipe and drum music. They go home after the services, but gather again at around three in the morning for religious processions honoring the birth of Jesus. Worshipers carry crosses, torches, flags, lit candles, and richly decorated ceremonial umbrellas. Priests in formal robes also march in the procession. They chant religious verses in the Syriac language, covered by canopies held aloft on poles by devout believers. The processions end at the church. Then everyone files inside for a Christmas morning service that concludes at dawn.

On Christmas Day people leave off fasting and celebrate with rich and delicious foods, including meat curry and bread made with rice flour and coconut paste. Visits to the homes of relatives also take place.

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. Tucker, Cathy C. Christmas Worldwide. Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris, 2000. Wernecke, Herbert H. Celebrating Christmas Around the World. 1962. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1999.

Web Site

Kerala Journal has posted "A Boy's Easter, and Christmas too," an essay by Thomas Palakeel, a professor of English literature at Bradley University. It describes a boy's Christmas in Kerala, India: KJ/eastchrist.html
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