Located in South Asia, India is a country of over 1.2 billion people; a tactile country with a rich tapestry of sight, sound, color, and activity. India dances to its own rhythm and visitors find themselves easily hypnotized by the exotic grandeur of the culture, the warmth of the people, and the natural beauty of the landscapes. Not surprisingly, travelers have discovered that India is a fantastic place to visit during all times of the year, including during the Christmas holidays.
Likely, when we think of spending Christmas in another country, most of us would not immediately think of India as celebrating this most Christian of holidays in a country where Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism were born may seem incongruous. The truth is, however, that, while they are decidedly a small number in such a populous country, there are over 25 million Christians in India – most of whom make their home in Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay); and Christmas is indeed celebrated in the grand manner that is unique to India.
If you’re considering spending Christmas in India, here are some things you must know:
Midnight Mass is a tradition in India as well. Just as the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass service is a practiced holiday tradition in the United States, those in India also partake in this grand tradition- walking to service and ending with a feast of curries and other delicious foods that the women have spent days preparing. After the meal – as a part of the Christmas season of giving – members of the family exchange gifts with each other.
Christmas Trees are a bit different. The Christmas Tree – the icon of this Christian holiday – is done just a bit differently in India. Here, those celebrating the holiday are more likely to decorate mango or banana trees than a traditional Christmas tree.
Red flowers everywhere. Christian churches are filled with red flowers during the Christmas holiday; this includes poinsettias, the traditional Christmas flower.
Charity is a part of gift-giving. Just as families give gifts to each other for the Christmas holiday, giving to charity is also a part of the Christmas tradition in India. Known as baksheesh, charity to the poor is a part of the culture – especially during the holidays.
Nativity Scenes are big. Call it the holiday status symbol, but the Nativity Scene should never be underestimated in Christmas celebrations in India. In Mumbai, Christians place their displays in the front windows of their homes – one more elaborate than the next.
Stars light the way. There is a Christian tradition in India to hang star-shaped paper lanterns between the houses creating a well-lit star-filled road which travelers pass underneath, and homes are always ready with sweets for visitors during the holiday season. In fact, those celebrating Christmas will wander through their villages to admire the homes and decorations and share holiday treats with their friends and neighbors, much as it’s a tradition in other countries to tour through neighborhoods to admire the Christmas lights.
Rooftop reminders. Rather than the traditional Christmas lights that most of us are used to, Christians in India use clay lamps to decorate flat rooftops. These oil lamps are left burning as a symbol of the light of Jesus.
Shopping, shopping. Because gift-giving is a part of the Christmas season, shopping for gifts is a part of the preparation for the holiday season. Local markets, Christmas bazaars, and even large department stores are set up to make finding the perfect gift easy to accomplish.
Music of the season. During the week of Christmas – as is done in other countries – Christians travel from village to village to sing their own traditional carols.
Santa’s sleigh. Of course, the climax of the Christmas season for children is the arrival of Santa Claus and it’s no different in India where children anxiously await the arrival of Father Christmas or “Christmas Baba” – who instead of a sleigh and reindeer, delivers his gifts with a horse and cart.
Christmas is about celebrating the spirit of the season with the people we love most. There are many ways to celebrate and doing so amidst the heartbeat of India may be the start of a fantastic, fulfilling new Christmas tradition.