I grew up as a Catholic in a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian. In the city of Chandigarh in northern India, ours was among the handful of Christian families. Even though Christmas was a big deal for us, it wasn’t as festive around as it is here in the western world.
If you have not personally experienced it, you probably would have no idea of how we could celebrate Christmas as minorities living in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim country. First of all, getting a Christmas tree was almost impossible. So we had to make do by cutting off a branch of a pine tree from the neighborhood and decorate it with ornaments that we had once purchased in the big cities, such as Delhi and Mumbai. These angels, stuffed Santas and colorful lights stayed with us for many decades. Our tree would go up couple of days before Christmas and stay in our living room for about a week or so. This was mainly because we didn’t know how to preserve the branch of a tree.
During the week before Christmas, the choir from the church would get together and hop on a bus, visiting all the Christian families in town. They would go door to door, singing Christmas carols and bringing good tidings. The priest, nuns, devoted citizens and Santa, all gave up a few evenings to share the season with the parish. As it is engraved in the Indian culture, we could not let our guests leave our home without eating. So we served them food and drinks, before they left for another home on a cold winter evening. In my city, it got as low as 30’sF in December and we did not have central heating or even fireplaces.
The tradition of gift giving was very important even for us in India, but we did not overindulge. Every person in the family received exactly one gift from each other. And we are not talking about expensive gadgets, cars and designer wear here. Our purchases included winter clothes, toys and household items. We bought gifts for immediate family members and those who worked for us. The gifts were placed under the tree only the night before Christmas.
On Christmas eve, the entire family would go to church for midnight mass. This was the most beautiful ceremony I would see all year. The church was decorated with lights, and nativity scenes were set up in the front garden. It was rather surprising to see a couple of hundred people gather at midnight, when I didn’t even know we had that many Christians in our city. Turned out that many non-Christians would also attend mass just because they were curious about it and wanted to mark the occassion. After mass, there would be tea and cake served to all attendees by the church. My family would get home around 2am and would still have enough excitement to open presents while enjoying more cake.
On Christmas day, we never invited people over for a party, but they just came. It was given that a Christian family would be cooking and celebrating for Christmas, so we had to prepare food for anyone who would want to “drop by” to greet us. Over the course of the day, everyone would go out to visit with their only Christian friends. They would bring us gifts, and we would serve them snacks. We did not have turkey or wine. Our traditional Christmas food was a blend of Indian and Continental (as we knew it). There was cutlets, kebabs, samosa and cake, and tea and Coke to name a few. It was a dry rolling party that lasted all day.
To conclude the evening, we would light fireworks, that we would have bought and saved from Diwali (the biggest festival in India that takes place in October-November when fireworks are in large supply). We would be the only home in our area launching colorful firework rockets and passing around sparklers, so everyone knew we were the “Christians who were celebrating Christmas.”