What Christmas means to me…

Night view of the Basilica Santhome, Chennai. Pic: Arul Anand

In the latest instalment of our series on “What Christmas means to me”, Varun Krishnan ponders Christmases in his home city of Chennai, and enjoying the festive season in his Hindu family.

When you see the quintessential Christmas stars outside homes, or the carols reverberating from churches and speakers, you wouldn’t think Christians constitute a meagre 2.3% of India’s population.

I’m from Chennai, the capital city of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The city is a melting pot of cultures and major festivals like Christmas and Diwali are shared across religions. December is usually a good time for the those of other faiths too: I come from a Hindu family, but I look forward to native Christmas delicacies like ‘Achappam’ (rose cookies) that we get from our Christian neighbours.

Of course, good food transcends religion: even the staunchest vegetarian Hindus like my mum can’t help but popping in a chunk of egg-infused rich plum cake and going “Oooh, this is so delicious.”

And though she was brought up in a conservative household, as Christmas nears she has the propensity to break into song, sometimes startling you while you read Dickens’ Christmas Carol for the squillionth time: “Deck the hall with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la la,” she bursts out.

She attended a Catholic institution as a kid (so did I) and both of us sang from hymn books and said our prayers every day of our school life, while also following the traditional Hindu rituals. Therefore, singing carols and eating Christmasy delicacies was as much a part of childhood as was setting of fireworks during Diwali and eating laddoos (ball made of flour and sugar).

This is the norm in Christian schools across the country: irrespective of our religion, we say our prayers to the Lord, sing his praises and of course, be thankful for Christmas holidays. For my mum, it’s an important trip down the memory lane as she remembers the choir and the carols from her school life.

I realise that in the West, occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas are intimate and meant to be spent with family. In India, you become part of the family when you visit Christian friends.

Christmas Lights, Park Street, Kolkata Pic: Amartyabag

For years, our family has joined my dad’s friend’s Christian family for Christmas and they make special vegetarian food for us. We exchange gifts, drink in the well-crafted nativity scenes (and some good homemade wine too).

One of my Christian friends told me her that her family stops eating meat about 40 days before Christmas, and break their meat fast only on Christmas eve. “It’s like Lent. The idea is to give up some luxury and this is one of the easier ones to give up,” she laughed.

In the evening, we usually drop by the Santhome Basilica in Chennai for Mass, tea and cake. We also listen to immaculately dressed choir members crooning ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Silent Night’. The population of beggars suddenly spikes outside churches before Christmas, and it’s no coincidence that the giving spirit in people peaks too. Merry Christmas indeed!

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