Christmas is an Indian Festival too!
Some stories are evergreen and resonate year after year. This was written back in 2007 and the children in these stories have grown up but the sentiments remain the same! I remember spending a lot of time researching these stories and talking to the families profiled here. For me, these stories are almost like Christmas ornaments that I take out every holiday season to share and add sparkle to the holiday!
Christmas is an Indian festival, as you will see from the stories here. Do share your own memories too in the comments!
Indian Christians Celebrate Christmas
While Christmas is important to Indian Christians as a celebration of faith, many non-Christians enjoy it as a secular holiday in ways small and big. Indeed, Christmas is such a huge, high voltage commercialized event in America that few can escape its allure, be they Christians or not.
If you’re an Indian Christian, your traditional Christmas cuisine travels with you – no matter where you go in the world. Christopher and Beverly D’Souza, who came to America just five years ago via Bombay and Abu Dhabi, serve this eclectic feast at their holiday table, a menu which crisscrosses various Christian communities in India.
Ever eaten this at Christmas?
Duck Moile, Chicken Shakuti, Pork Innad, Beef Stew and colorful Wedding Rice bedecked with caramelized onions, raisins, nuts and sliced boiled eggs. All this topped with an array of sweets including Kul-Kul, Thali Sweets, Milk Cream and Rose-de-Coque.
Beverly, who is East Indian and was born and brought up in Abu Dhabi, not only cooks the meals of her childhood but also those of Christopher’s, who is from Mangalore. On their festive holiday table you’ll find Chicken Khudi and Duck Moile, which are East Indian specialties as well as Chicken Shakuti which is a Goan dish. There’s also Pork Innad, a Mangalorean dish and the Anglo Indian Beef Stew.
Christmas meals amongst the Indian Christians are elaborate, holiday worthy meals under the weight of which a table can literally groan. The meal starts with appetizers like Ground Meat and Potato Croquettes or Fried Potato Chops filled with meat – this tradition has changed to also include the more healthy ground chicken, turkey or vegetables.
There’s also the weird-sounding Salted Tongue of which Beverly says, “This may seem quite strange to a lot of people but is a delicacy for some – however this tradition is changing with modern families and is rarely eaten out of India. Also, since we did not celebrate Thanksgiving in India, many homes also had the Stuffed and Roasted Pig, Chicken, Turkey or Goose served on the table ready to be carved. Some of these traditions continued when we migrated.”
She adds that besides the curries, Pork Sorpotal and Vindaloo are other traditional dishes served at Christmas and each of the Christian communities has their own recipes for these dishes. Breads served by East Indians include Fugias while Mangaloreans and Goans serve Sannas, which is white, looks like an idli but tastes very different.
Indian Christians, Diverse voices…
With the approach of Christmas, Indian Christians are celebrating the birth of Christ not only with their many different celebratory meals but also raising their voices in prayer in many tongues including Malayalam, Telegu, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati, besides English.
“The Indian Christian population in the US is quite diverse, both in its denominational and linguistic identification, with significant numbers of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants, including Pentecostal,” says Raymond B. Williams, author of “Christian Pluralism in the United States: the Indian Immigrant Experience” (Cambridge University Press). He points out that there is a representative group of almost all the churches that are present in India, and these are sometimes organized in denominational groups and sometimes in linguistic groups.
According to Abraham Mammen, President of the Federation of Indian American Christians of North America (FIACONA), a US based umbrella organization, there are approximately 600,000 Indian Christians in the country, and about a third of these are in the Northeast.
“Each denomination celebrates Christmas differently,” says Mammen. “Some don’t even celebrate it in a ceremonial way because they feel that the birth of Christ is something to be remembered every day of their lives. It is a fact, though, that Christmas is the most important day of their lives, of God coming to earth as a man. For Indian Christians in America, I’ve seen that regardless of how long we’ve been here, our roots still go back to India.”
So Indian Christians can merge into the mainstream or worship at their own churches which are established across the US. Visit the Long Island Mar Thoma Church in Merrick, Long Island and you hear the Christmas carols being sung in Malayalam, by the congregation, many of them bedecked in rich silk saris. A festive meal that this writer shared with Keralite Christians after the services at their church included many ethnic dishes including chicken curry, pullao, appam or pancakes, and payasam or rice pudding.
“We bring our own music, our own costumes and our own way of Caroling at Christmas,” says Rev Jos Kandathikudy of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church. “The carolers dress up in Indian garb as Jesus, Mother Mary and the Three Kings from the East, and our musicians use Indian drums for their blend of Malayalam and English carols.”
Indians and a New York Christmas…
Celebrating Christmas in America can be quite a revelation for immigrants who have grown up in other countries. Beverly D’Souza, who grew up in the Middle East, had never seen snow and saw her first magical snowflakes in a White Christmas in New York. “It was the first time I encountered a winter wonderland Christmas. It was snowing all day and we went to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. I just love the streets and the lights and the shopping. In Abu Dhabi the streets were lit up for Ramadan but never for Christmas – that’s why this is so special for me.”
Christmas was, however, not a lonely time in Abu Dhabi because Christian families would get together, and have parties, Christmas bazaars and concerts in the schools and also organize dance parties at the five star hotels.
One custom that Indian Christian communities delight in is their holiday desserts, and although there are considerable Portuguese influences in the main dishes of several Christian communities, the Hindu influences prevail in the spicing and in the sweets. Although there are traditional sweets like Mixed Fruit Cake, Plum Cake and Date Cake, the Indian mithai influence is there in Marzipan, Milk Cream, Cordials which are all cashew nut or almond based. Do Dol is made of rice flour, jaggery, cashew nut and flour dough while Thalie Sweets are suji (cream of wheat) and egg based. Deep fried Kul-Kuls and Nankhatais or cookies are also a must in the spread of holiday sweets.
The D’Souzas make many of these sweets during the holiday season. She says, “Tradition has been carried across the oceans – even here friends from Connecticut and upstate New York came with their homemade sweets to visit each other. When my mother is in town, all the sweets are made at home.”
After midnight mass, the D’Souzas visit close friends for coffee and fruitcake, and on Christmas morning their three year old son Luke opens the presents that Santa has brought him. Indeed, the Santa Claus tradition is strong with Indian Christians, be they in India, the Middle East or in America. Over the years Beverly has seen Santa arrive in Goa, Mumbai and Abu Dhabi by boat, chariot and even a helicopter – and now her son sees him arrive in the neon-lit glitz of Macy’s, probably by subway or cab!
An Indian Christmas in Oklahoma
For Mike Lulla of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Christmas has a very special meaning because he discovered his Christian faith late in life. A Sindhi Hindu from Hong Kong, he was one of the many hundreds of traveling mail order salesmen who came to the US in the 70’s to book orders for their tailoring businesses back in the Orient. According to Lulla, about a hundred of these traveling salesmen embraced Christianity, and he is one of them. “Most of us are Evangelical Christians who were led to Lord by the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he says, “I’m the only Sindhi Christian here but there are also Malayalee, Telegu, Tamil, Punjabi and Gujarati Christians in Oklahoma City.”
Lulla, who is originally from Pune, goes to a mainstream Baptist Church and is the only Indian who belongs to that church. He is one of the co-founders of India Association of Oklahoma and is very involved with the organization of Diwali celebrations but religion-wise, he is deeply into Christianity. The house is dressed for Christmas, and the mantelpiece is decorated with the Holy Cross and fresh flowers. He says, “Jesus is the focal point of Christmas, not Santa Claus.”
Indeed, his Christmas is very Christ-oriented and revolves around the church. On Christmas Eve the family attends a midnight mass and the next day is a full day program in the church with a reading of the special Christmas message from the Bible. The family also goes caroling from door to door in their neighborhood, since most are mainstream Christians in that area. At home, Lulla, his wife Kamlesh, children – Munesh, Jay, Julie and Justin – exchange gifts with family and guests who are invited home for festivities.
Christmas – an Indian Festival
While Christmas is important to Indian Christians as a celebration of faith, many non-Christians enjoy it as a secular holiday in ways small and big. Indeed, Christmas is such a huge, high voltage commercialized event in America that few can escape its allure, be they Christians or not. For most Indians it’s hard not to get sucked into the whole holiday ambiance what with the shopping madness, the carols in public places, and the barrage of Christmas shows and music even on TV.
Also for many non-Christians who grew up in India, Christmas is very much a secular festivity since it is a national holiday throughout India, and very much a shared celebration, a time for family get-togethers in hotels and private homes.
One person who takes Christmas very seriously is Mohina Josen, a second generation Indian-American who grew up in New York. She and her husband Ricky Tejpaul buy their most expensive, big ticket items at Christmas; the kids get elaborate gift wrapped packages. The family sets up not one but two elaborate trees and hosts a rocking holiday party with Santa Claus, elves and all the trimmings – and even a pre-Christmas party to start up the festivities!
The couple is open to every festival and besides celebrating their own Sikh and Hindu festivals, they also celebrate Christmas and American festivals like Thanksgiving, Halloween and Valentine’s Days. From a young age, she saw Christmas being celebrated by her friends. Mohina also remembers going to Christmas celebrations at the home of a Catholic friend of her mother’s and the tradition just carried on. The family had many relatives in Europe and they would travel there during the Christmas holidays to celebrate together.
Christmas – Old Traditions & New…
“When you’re a child and you’re going to school the next day, you’d always hear from others ‘What did you get from Santa?’ It was a thrill opening the gifts,” she recalls. “We did it for the whole commercial aspect of it, for the children to have fun, for Santa Claus and for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” So while Thanksgiving is hosted by her mother, Diwali by her mother-in-law, Mohina, who now has two little daughters of her own, Zarina and Sabina, has appropriated Christmas. All the holidays are now taken care of!
Mohina goes all the way with Christmas: The Saturday before Christmas she decorates the house, putting up two live trees and smaller trees on another floor of the house. There’s a pre-holiday party where friends and family drop in to help with the decorations of the house, sip hot chocolate with marshmallows and sing carols. Having grown up here, she has friends from many races, and they have made a tradition of baking together for their children’s schools as well as for colleagues at work.
“The children have made out their lists for Santa, and I tell them that whatever Santa can bring, he will,” she says. “They’ve already written letters to him, telling him how wonderful they’ve been and on Christmas they keep out cookies and milk for Santa, and something for Rudolph and the other reindeers.”
The family also has a tradition of doing some Christmas activities in Manhattan such as going to the Radio City Music Hall or for a holiday show like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. At the Christmas party where she hosts 20 to 40 family members and friends, she serves a huge, traditional American feast, from leg of lamb to all the trimmings and desserts. One year, she recalls, she actually created home-made chocolates encased in chocolate sleds for all the guests as a take home as party favors.
Indeed, for the second generation Indian-Americans who have grown up surrounded by Christmas and Christian friends, it’s a part of their American experience and as new parents, they want to pass it on their children. “There’s a holiday spirit and the euphoria of the whole month and I think that’s what we are celebrating,” says Mohina. “We start with Diwali, Thanksgiving and Guru Nanakji’s birth, and so we just continue celebrating.”
Indian-Americans also celebrate with many social and work-related holiday parties – it seems the perfect time to throw a bash since the whole country is in celebration mode. It’s a convenient time to get together with friends since on Christmas Eve there’s a light work schedule and a holiday the next day – a perfect opportunity to organize a get-together, which is not always possible on Diwali since that holiday often falls on a week day.
It’s all about traditions, about preserving old ones and creating new ones….
© Lavina Melwani (This article was written in 2007.)