By Nilanjana Goswami
The fairy lights have been hung up, the woollens are out and in commission, the sun peeps through the rolls of fog at dawn to warm a city in celebration. A heady brew of cinnamon and coffee tinges the chill hanging in the air throughout the day, and wherever one goes, one is met with crowds out in their colourful, festive best soaking up the essence of the Christmas season. This is our December, here in India, and this too is the time when the phrase “the spirit of the season” becomes a buzzword for the teeming multitudes celebrating the end of the year in style.
Tis a season of joy
Holly, ivy and mistletoe may very well have been cemented as traditional fixtures for the holiday season, but with Christianity spreading to unique cultural contexts, traditions and practices had to be compromised upon and visibly altered. This is quite a common practice with which academics and researchers map social and religious change in cultures that intermingle. With the advent of a new religion in a certain culture, many holidays and gods of the older religion are retained in the newer disposition to make it easily accessible to the people. The mythical and cultural figure of Santa-Claus itself admits of constellating different figures from pagan religions and early branches of Christianity. In the heterogeneous roots of one of the most widely-celebrated holidays in the world, we get an idea of the inclusive cultural ethos that forms its bedrock. It is this very inclusive cultural ethos that has made it popular across India’s diverse demographic.
“The spirit of the season” was traditionally used to denote the very ethos of Christmas. A close translation would be “Christmas spirit”, or the ethos of the holiday season—a sublimation of all the tiny and great nuts and bolts of tradition, goodwill, jubilation and warmth that make up the machine of a significant cultural experience. Transferred to the cultural context of India this gives rise to many different kinds of “Christmases” celebrated across the states, each with its unique character and sensibility. 2.3% of the Indian population (close to 24 million of the 1.2 billion strong population, therefore) are Christian by faith. Due to this, Christmas is quite a major source of celebrations in India with each city having its own little traditions unveiled to the next generation of citizens as constituting its very own, unique Christmas experience.
All the festivals of India
Christmas in India, however, isn’t as feverish and baroque as some of the great festivities like Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra and Durga Puja in West Bengal. Instead of unceasing celebrations, it is rather an accompanying strain to the slow and graceful sunset of yet another year gone by. For an Indian, Christmas is primarily an occasion for stock-taking, repose and reflection. The spirit of the season can be found in an otiose aesthetic made up of basking in the warmth of the sun while out on picnics or huddling together on the sofa at intimate house-parties. Somewhere in the middle of the tenuous stretch from nightclub-hopping to planning the famous year-end picnic, revelry is spun out of the cultural fabric. The general atmosphere is one of leisure and delicious languor that clings to even the most hardcore of party-animals. The machine of the year’s obligations and stresses grinds to a halt, leaving crowds adrift at sea to enjoy the view of the sun going down after yet another circle of loves, losses, troughs and peaks.
Embracing the revelry
Nevertheless, the most efficient way to bottle up the absolutes and the particulars that the phrase “the spirit of the season” denotes is through a montage. In Kolkata, for instance, Christmas is a time to wind-up the year’s cares. It’s an imaginary bell tolling throughout the city that signals the busy population that it’s time to close-up shop for the year. Mass is said in the churches across the city, attended by hundreds. The grandest of these affairs is that at St. Paul’s Cathedral, counting the Chief Minister herself in attendance. Rows of festive lights are strung up in every parish. Great lines snake their way towards famous Jewish bakeries in old marketplaces, huge crowds of people stay out throughout the evening to walk the roads and enjoy the canopies of lights at Park Street and festive banners with which the city is decked up like a giant Christmas tree. The sound of carols and the smell of freshly-baked bread waft out of department stores. Regular menus are swapped in the restaurants for extravagant Christmas menus, increasingly featuring traditional Christmas fare like turkey and quail. Aplomb is a byword for the festivities underway within the Anglo-Indian community at Bow Barracks and its neighbouring areas. Cultural events are planned by clubs and societies, often featuring well-known names in the music industry. Nightclubs, jazz-bars and various cultural events keep up the tempo throughout the end-of-the-year week. Entire neighbourhoods sit down well in advance to plan group outings and picnics, families gear up in their Christmassy best for visits to the zoo.
This all-embracing aesthetic that the Christmas holidays have come to stand for in countries like India look forward to an inclusive spirit that is at the heart of all major cultural celebrations across the world. 2017 has been a witness to trying times that have been as divisive and tenuous as worrying. It is heartening to recount, therefore, these various reflections that faith, gaiety and goodwill (virtues that had been traditionally linked with a Christian cultural context) have received in a secular system. It’s easy to build a fence, but it’s infinitely hard to find a confluence–especially in a country such as India with its variant cultural traditions.
Indian-ising it all the way through
Many reasons have been posited over the years as to why such a diverse population may slowly come undone due to the lack of any common meeting ground. However, it is the very nature of our country and its people to adopt cultural experiences different from its own that creates a point of contact among the multitudes. India remakes other traditions and people in its own image till nothing remains foreign and to be held at arm’s length. This is the very factor that operates behind every major experience that brings such a huge population together; this is the “spirit” of our “season”. A different montage can be made for each of the important festivities that the country celebrates, but they will all have this inclusive identity and this multifaceted warmth in common. This very warmth characterizes both the extravagant celebrations of festivals like Dussehra, and the tranquil Christmas. A sense of pause is given to the weary citizen, a shot is frozen while the camera pans to newer heights to scale and newer experiences to live, and in the midst of it all the spirit of the season settles like a comfortable shawl on our shoulders whenever we look up at the lights dotting the holiday sky.
Here’s to all the celebrations that have come before and the ones that are yet to come. Here’s to the important things in life that are often brushed under the carpet to make room for obligations. Here’s to love, honesty, courage and dreams. Here’s to the individual, here’s to the universe. And finally, to spreading gaiety, fun and merriment in all their forms across as many borders as possible whenever anybody tells us otherwise.
Here’s to a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
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