Bells, Cakes, Candles And Carols: What Makes The Merriment So Amazingly Contagious?

Posted on December 26, 2012 in Culture-Vulture

By Karmanye Thadani:

Ever since I was a small kid, I remember Christmas trees being decorated in our home and our parents giving my elder brother and me gifts on behalf of Santa Claus. Today, I happen to have authored books, but my very first piece of writing that was published was a piece on Christmas for our school magazine when I was in Class III, which talked about Santa and Rudolph. In Class VII, for the inter-section English Creative Writing Competition in our school, I wrote a long poem on Christmas, which went like this — “One of my favourite festivals is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus Christ…” and it won me the first prize. Am I a Christian? No, I am a Hindu, and one who has declined several offers of converting to Christianity made by people on interfaith discussion forums on the internet in the last few years! When I wrote those pieces as a kid, did it even occur to me that I wasn’t a Christian? I guess not.


On the 25th of December the world over, people celebrated Christmas. But why should I care so much about that festival, someone may ask… After all, I am not a Christian. Sure, one can have Christian friends, and I indeed have quite a few of them, but is there so much enthusiasm among us, educated Hindus in Delhi or Mumbai, including those with close Christian friends, for Easter, for example? And taking this further, I happen to have Muslim friends too, and though I do wish them on their festivals and have even enjoyed eating ‘sheer khorma’ on Id-ul-Fitr, somehow, the festival doesn’t feel as much my own as Christmas does (obviously no offence meant against Muslim friends). Why is it that the urban, educated Hindu population of our country that dotes on Khans in our film industry, fondly recites the poetry of Ghalib and mostly takes great pride in India’s grand composite culture, examples of which would include the Jama Masjid in Delhi, but not so much, if any at all, in symbols of Hindu culture in Nepal or Southeast Asia (such as the historic Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia) or not even bother to be cognizant of Hinduism having traditionally existed for centuries outside our subcontinent and without giving a second thought, go to pilgrimages to shrines of Muslim saints (mostly notably that of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer), more aware of the story behind Christmas than the one behind Id-ul-Fitr or Id-ul-Zuha? I am a Sindhi Hindu, and we traditionally revere the Sikh Gurus, and we have a langar every year on Guru Parab in our mostly Sindhi colony in Delhi; yet, that festival doesn’t appeal to me as much as Christmas does. Why?

I had gone to Singapore recently for a leisure trip with family, and my ethnographic instincts that cannot be suppressed compelled me to acknowledge that Singapore is truly a pluralistic country like India in terms of its racial and religious diversity, perhaps even more than India, for no one can possibly give a monochromatic definition of a Singaporean (it’s a country inhabited by people who trace their roots to China, Malaysia, India and elsewhere, practising their different religions and presenting an undoubtedly remarkable working model of multiculturalism; the average American in our imagination is still a white whose ancestors hit the shores of that country somewhere in the 1700s, but one can’t say the same for an average Singaporean), though there are elements in India consciously or subconsciously giving a monochromatic definition of an Indian, when an Indian with mongoloid features or even an Anglo-Indian is not deemed as a “proper Indian”, leave alone those with a saffron bent of mind, though it is very important to note that the shades of saffron vary, from being very light to very dark, but many (not all) with saffron shades are averse to Christians (as also Western culture) too.

Coming back to the gist of this piece with its primarily festive and light-hearted spirit. On the 20th of December itself, one could hear Christmas carols being sung in malls in Singapore. A cab driver, in a casual conversation with me, asked if Christmas was a big festival in India, and I replied in the affirmative, and he went on to say that it was the same in his country, which, like India, doesn’t have a Christian-majority population. I recalled Christmas having been celebrated with pomp and show in a visit to Muslim-majority Malaysia too some years back, with a huge Christmas tree adorning the airport in Kuala Lumpur being the first attraction as we made our entry in the city after a flight from Delhi, and the same was the scenario in the Hindu-majority Indonesian island of Bali we visited on that very trip.

So, what is it that gives Christmas the global feel? As Nitum Jain points out in an article on this very portal— “Some may call it commercialization, others may name this rising popularity ‘Westernization’, but there is no denying that Christmas is here to stay.”

It certainly cannot be denied that globalization is bound to have more of a Western flavour than Eastern, owing to the dominance of the West since the Industrial Revolution, and so, while yoga, the Indian curry and Taekwondo may be global hits, it’s much easier for facets of Western culture to seep into our consciousness, leading us to be more aware of the history of ancient Greece than that of our neighbour China, for example, but then, why isn’t Easter, Thanksgiving or Halloween such a big festival for non-Christians globally? One can understand Muslims not wanting to celebrate Easter, for the Islamic version of Jesus rejects his resurrection, but why isn’t it appealing to Hindus? Why don’t many Hindus even know the significance of Good Friday for Christians, in spite of it being a holiday in our schools and Govt. offices, and why do they still celebrate Christmas?

The answer is very simple — Christmas as a festival reaches out to the most tender and loved section of any society — children. The imagery of Santa Claus giving gifts to children appeals to one and all, irrespective of national or religious boundaries. With all due respect to Jesus, it’s actually Santa Claus who has become more emblematic of Christmas in non-Christian societies. We love Santa and so, we love Christmas. And indeed, that’s all it can take for something to go global.

In fact, in the light of this, it may amuse the readers to note that the immense popularity of this festival has annoyed a tiny minority of fanatic Christians. I learnt this from Mr. Russel Bryant, a practising Christian from Britain, who posted in my Orkut community ‘Hindu-Christian Dialogue’ - “You might be amused to know that a small minority of Christian fundamentalists believe that Santa Claus is a lie from the pit of hell to mislead people away from the real story of Christmas.

I personally know a young woman who wrote a paper at Cedarville University on this very subject. She is now teaching in a school in Pennsylvania.

Not hard to believe, for when such Christians see Santa stealing the limelight from Jesus, and even “non-believers” enjoying their festival this way, they do find something terribly wrong! Fanatic Muslims fare no better, pointing out that since Jesus is their religious figure too, they shouldn’t celebrate his birthday the way the Christians celebrate it, for the Quranic perspective of Jesus is quite different from the Biblical one! Still others, irrespective of faith, point out how celebrating the festival is wrong, for even if Jesus did exist, there is no Biblical evidence to support the 25th of December as being his birthday, and this festival actually having Greco Roman pagan roots, but those celebrating it, without contesting the same, ask — what’s wrong in celebrating and spreading joy?

And so, I take this golden opportunity to wish one and all a belated Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: The author is a 23-year-old freelance writer based in New Delhi. A lawyer by qualification, he has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World’. He is currently writing another book on Sino-Indian relations. To read his other posts click here. [/box]

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