'Christmas in India' is a very famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1886.
Even though Christians form a minority community in India, this does not dampen the Christmas and New Year celebrations across the length and breadth of the country. Christmas is celebrated by believers and non-believers alike, complete with scenes of Nativity, Christmas puddings, and even Christmas trees (even though fir trees grow only in the northern hilly tracts of the country).
Legend has it that Christmas was originally celebrated by Romans as a Pagan festival, dedicated to the Sun God, and symbolizing the victory of light over darkness. It was much later that December 25th came to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus Christ (in fact, only around 345 AD). One may safely say that despite the fact that Christmas is widely regarded as a Christian festival; the basic spirit it imbibes is that of family traditions, celebrations, greetings, and gifts.
After three hundred years of colonization, Christianity and English are an inseparable part of the Indian culture. Besides, Indians are people who just need a reason to celebrate and Christmas seems to be as good a reason as any other. So a large number of Indians decorate their homes with the glowing star and little Christmas trees...even if the climate disagrees with the white Christmas concept. Pine trees are not found in many parts of India, hence, mango or even banana trees are decorated for Christmas. Trees are decorated with tinsel stars, cotton snowflakes, lights, and candy. Carol singing and sending cards are a must for every educated Indian. In fact, cards are not sent for Indian festivals as much as for Christmas and New Year (a Roman concept).
Preparations starts a month before the 25th (which is known as Bada Din in Hindi). Houses are thoroughly cleaned and painted, and people indulge in shopping. Roads, shops, and houses are decorated with colorful lights. Christmas is the best time for family re-unions for many Indian Christians. Parties and dancing is an integral part of the festivities, and many Indians participate in them wholeheartedly. Classy hotels, smaller clubs, and restaurants, groups of friends, schools, colleges, and many social organizations have parties. There is a festive mood and the usual motto is, "eat, drink, dance, and celebrate". There is no dearth of good spirit even if it is not just a good Christian spirit. Santa Claus brings gifts to children, just as he does in other parts of the world!
On a more serious note, the concentration of Christian faith is more in the north Eastern Hills and along the western, Southern coastline of the country. Each of these areas add their cultural flavor to their faith and the result is one cosmopolitan celebration of the birth of the Savior and of family values. The Goans, on the west coast, from the land of palm fringed beaches and coconut feni, the Khasi, Mizo, and Naga tribes of the North East, the orthodox Catholics, Syrians, and Protestants of Kerala, all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in music and dance, food or spirits. The prayer service is usually in the local language and festivities almost always include local games and activities.
Each area has a distinctly different way of celebrating Christmas. In far North Eastern Mizoram, Christmas is a community event, a time for community feasting, called Lengkhawn Zai, (with roots in pre-Christian era). Their carols are low, soft songs, more signifying spiritual joy than festivity.
Goa is one favorite destination for Christmas celebrations. Prayers in churches, partying, dancing, Bebinca (a typical Goan dessert), etc., are a part of Goan Christmas celebrations. In fact, a large number of people from the country as well as abroad make a beeline to this little coastal state to celebrate their Christmas holidays in style.
Generally, the Christians who live in the plains of India decorate mango or banana trees at Christmas time, some even use mango leaves to decorate their homes, like during Hindu festivals. During the Christmas service, most churches are decorated with poinsettias and candles. In fact, one of the first things that one notices about an Indian Christmas is the presence of poinsettia leaves instead of holly (holly does not grow in 80% of the country).
In South India, little clay lamps are lit in homes. Their wicks are twisted so the flame lasts longer. These tiny lamps decorate the walls and houses of the clean, green countryside as well as urban centers. Kerala does it with more religious fervor. Being the most favorite tourist destination for foreigners to the country, this coastal state, popularly known as God's own country, is believed to be the cradle of Christian civilization in the country since 52 AD, when St Thomas (Thomas the Apostle) made it his land of missionary zeal. There are many old Christian communities here. Christmas in Kerala is serious business, more faith than mere celebrations.
In South India, even though the lunch menu is roast duck, sometimes pork and mincemeat pies, there is a decided presence of stew and appams (pancakes made of a batter of rice flour and coconut milk, to be enjoyed with mutton stew, a very typical South Indian delicacy). There is avial in other south Indian states, murukku (a fried pretzel made of lentil and rice flour), and chicken and fish appetizers gracing the table alongside the Christmas pudding. Pork Vindaloo is a popular dish included in Goan Christmas food.
The traditional Christmas cake, rich plum cake, rum and raisin cake, etc., are made at Christian homes. Secondly, sweets like rose cookies, ginger cookies, sugar cookies, donuts, and chocolate walnut fudge are also made specifically for Christmas. Kulkuls (a fried sweet made with semolina, coconut milk, and sugar), Achappam (a crunchy sweet snack from Kerala), Bebinca (a type of layered pudding) are authentic Indian sweets, made in some parts of the country during Christmas.
Tropical plants, children in gaily colored dresses, Santa Claus distributing sweets, devout believers attending the midnight or morning Mass, drums, and hymns accompany the December 25th celebrations, it is all seen in India during Christmastime. This is the spirit of Christmas in India.