Christmas brings out diversities little known in India

Swasti Pachauri
The towering might of the evergreen pine tree. Cotton flakes imitating snow on spruce and fir. Quintessential holly wreaths woven with bay leaf and sequin stars. Misty evenings sparkling with candles and lights. Calming echoes of ‘Silent Night’. The Goan ‘kuswar’ and traditional north Indian gujiya, or nuriyo. Add to these, the signature plum cake and classic red, golden, burgundy baubles. Each celebrating the spirit of Christmas.

While trends of ‘going green’, energy-efficient lighting, mini trees of ‘rolling nature’ or ‘thuja’ shrub and newspaper décor have been gaining ground, the idea of ‘White Christmas’ nestled in the Himalayas is also becoming the new normal. Whatever be the method in this revelry, at the festival’s essence are pastoral imagery depicting nativity scenes, cribs from the Bible, associated with the birth of Christ and other related sacraments.

Such sacredness is in the soul of similarities and differences that weave cultural diversities together, for different ideas integrate perpetually to shape an intangible secular homogeneity. This process of acculturation (newer cultural forms adapted by local traditions) that continuously reinvents itself, preserves such sanctity of the folklore amid rapid transformations. For instance, the celebration of different festivals in diverse parts of the country with local and current trends.

For example, many of the scheduled tribes in India that follow Christianity owing to early cultural exposure during colonial rule and later for their own religious affiliations, celebrate Christmas using a blend of indigenous and Western concepts. While anthropologists like Verrier Elwin spoke in favour of an ‘isolationist approach’ to preserve tenets of traditional tribal culture, many others favoured cultural integration and assimilation approaches, so as to fasten development and integration of communities at the fringes.

Nonetheless, celebrating festivals with a mix of methods is evident of plurality of existence. Synchronicity of traditional and modern celebrations underscore acceptance of secular ethos, multiplicities and an increased sense of tolerance, amalgamating cultural influences from the past and present.

Districts in the Chotanagpur plateau (spread over Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh) witness Christmas celebrations among certain tribes that follow Christianity. While many preserve traditions of ‘sarnaism’ (religion of the holy woods), the indigenous religion of ‘santhal’ and ‘ho’ tribes of Jharkhand, Christmas celebrations are followed by traditional customs of ‘sarhul’ or ‘worship of the evergreen sal tree’. Sarhul is the harvest festival when the sal tree native to Saranda forest blooms. Tall like the pine, sal is an important source of livelihoods and is worshipped in ‘sarna’ (sacred groves) during spring. In fact, in his work, Tribal Festivals in Bihar (1982), Ajit K Singh argued that santhals were encouraged to celebrate Christmas as the festival of harvest similar to traditional sarhul.

Many after the customary celebrations at the church offer prayers to Jesus, sal trees, or sometimes their own Christmas trees with incense sticks and flowers. Women dress up in the classic santhali yellow and red saree, with white flowers in hair, followed by santhali music and dance. This corroborates to how people amalgamate tradition with the modern while preserving local identities. Through such examples, we see how a mix of celebratory togetherness contributes to the longevity of tradition, while being tolerant to other kinds of philosophies, which may also inspire us to explore the ‘melting pot’ theory of assimilation, while retaining identities.

Take for instance, English recitations, poems and other carols that are sometimes substituted with Hindi or tribal dialect in the interiors of Saranda forests. Cakes and plum puddings that dominate the urban scene have their own traditional substitutes of ‘arsa’ (rice, palm sugar or jaggery puddings) and staple rice beer known as ‘hadiya’, tea and taben khajari.

Similarly, traditional music and dance of santhali culture follow customary Christmas recitations. Renditions using cymbals, tamk, tumduk and kabkubi, the traditional musical instruments of indigenous people here. Additionally, popular culture has lent its own bearing to santhali music through modern adaptations. Some popular Christmas songs in santhali are ‘Dular Jishu’ and ‘Likir Likir’ that people sing.

Further in the north east, Mizoram sees Christmas fervour for good three days. One spectacular feature of celebrations here is the creatively decorated streets with lights of various shapes and sizes. The entire town of Aizawl dazzles in colorful lights. The singing service at the church known as ‘Krismas Lenkhawm’ followed by community ‘cheraw’ or bamboo dance are important ways of celebration to some. It must be noted that the Kolkata Christmas Festival that started in 2011, also has similar such street lighting competitions, where artistes from across the state decorate the town.

In Nagaland, right after the Hornbill Festival, Christmas symbolises the importance of community cohesion and kinship ties. Traditional delicacies of rice puddings, pork, meat, stewed vegetables, spicy chutney made of Naga raja mirchi and sweets are the flavours here.

Community cohesion is visible among the Gondi people with community feasting amid their own fundamentals of maintaining harmony with nature. Locals prepare halwa from sesame, sama rice and dry Mahua flower, just like any other festival of this society. In place of rice beer, Mahua Mahuli is consumed. Creative expression through art, dance and music steals the show with colourful Gondi attires and ornaments of silver, peacock feathers, leaves and flowers; after the midnight mass and customary prayer.

Christmas, thus, symbolises vibrant merrymaking and the importance of celebrating kinship in the highly detached world that we are slowly transitioning to. Community exchanges during festivals laced with tradition add humility to the otherwise vivacity, thus, bringing out humble colours of peace, joy, hope and love.
Here’s a Merry Christmas to all!
(Source: The Indian Express. Swasti Pachauri is a social sector professional, formerly working as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh. Views expressed are personal.)

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