Dear ol’ uncle plays a joyful tune on the piano while grandma and dad delight everyone with their renditions of famous Christmas carols. Soon everyone is singing and dancing, with many happily inebriated thanks to home-made wine! Presents are opened, laughter rings loud and the children can’t help but peek under the tree for more gifts. The roast chicken is never enough, but there’s enough rum-soaked fruit cake and wine to go around! The revelry goes on into the wee hours of the morning. Christmas is indeed a cheerful time of year!
Many of us are attuned to Christmas celebrations fed to us by popular culture and our favourite holiday movies. We want the snow, the spirit of Xmas, the joy of giving, the splendour of glittering Christmas trees and of course, hot chocolate with marshmallows by the fire and Ryan Gosling.
Alas, in the tropics things are a little different. The air is just a little cooler, the sun sets by 6pm and the neighbourhood store begins putting out decorations for sale. There are faux wreaths and plastic Xmas trees, big paper stars to place over a hanging bulbs and Christmas songs playing in every store.
In the small island nation of Sri Lanka, Christmas is celebrated by everyone despite it predominantly being a Buddhist country. Historically, Sri Lanka has Portuguese, Dutch and British influences dating back to the 16th century. Although only 7% of its people are Christians, it is a public holiday, and the Christmas season begins on 1st December when people set off firecrackers at dawn. Streets are decorated, shopping centres have big blowout sales and many offices and hotels organise events, dances and parties. Dancing is especially loved here. Christmas performances even highlight some of the traditional dances of this country. In Sinhala, Santa is called Naththal Seeya and Merry Christmas is ‘Suba Naththalak Wewa’.
In India, the first signs of Christmas are witnessed at star hotels where the cake mixing ceremony takes place almost 40 days in advance. Interestingly, different parts of India have their special little ways to celebrate Christmas. In Goa, where a sizeable part of the population is Roman Catholic, Christmas includes a traditional treat called neureos/nevri made of desiccated coconut, semolina and nuts. Another famous treat is the Dodol, which is made of coconut milk, nuts, rice flour and jaggery. In Daman and Diu festivities include the wonderful Corridinho Portuguese folk dance.
In the North East, carols are sung in the native tongue of the region and celebrations include traditional dances, midnight mass and a delectable feast.
In some parts of South India, earthen lamps are lit and placed on rooftops and balconies to symbolize the belief that Jesus is the light of the world. Many people fast during Advent. Carol singing house to house is common in Kerala and feasts are made with traditional dishes like Neyyappam, Stew, Kappa (tapioca) Biriyani. Big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai are commercial hot spots for Christmas shopping and celebrations are with pomp and grandeur. Churches are lit up and midnight mass resonates through the air, night life is abuzz with various parties, live music shows, dance and more.
Home-made wine, the beautifully decorated churches, midnight mass, carol singing and a happy gathering of family and friends over food and drink is synonymous with Christmas no matter where you are. People love to celebrate however they can as the spirit of Christmas, symbolizing love, unity and togetherness, echoes with all irrespective of religion. The joy of giving (and receiving) is just the star on top of the tree.