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Bada din just got bigger
Has anyone noticed how Christmas is no longer a Christian festival in India? That fairy lights strung up for Diwali stay up till the last week of December?
Christmas is getting visibly bigger year on year in India, as the country happily embraces the Santa Claus, Xmas trees and jolly red hats. I am quite sure there were not so many people wandering around wearing red hats and Santa masks when we moved back to India seven years ago, but now it's - well, it's not exactly commonplace - but Diwali lights seem to stay up longer and longer each winter, as one festive season segues into another.
I had my major Delhi Christmas moment about five or six years ago, when I discovered, oh joy of joys, a tiny shop in Khan Market selling Christmas decorations and tinsel and Christmas wreaths, and loads of other seasonal goodies. My own Christmas wreath, which we hang on our front door, and my four Advents wreaths had all got slightly battered in our move to India. And, oh joy of joys, Mark II, there were five pretty matching wreaths on display at the shop. I reached out to pick them up, only to find someone else grabbing the biggest of them.
Banking on the usual Indian courtesy towards (a) foreigners and (b) older women, I smiled at the very young man who continued to hold onto the wreath, expecting him to relinquish it gracefully.
But he was having none of it.
He tugged it from my hand, so I said, "Er, excuse me, I think I might have got hold of that first. " That should shame him, I thought.
"But I need it, " he said, unmoved.
"Oh really, " I smiled back, determined to keep the moral high ground.
"And why do you need five Christmas wreaths? I want it for my home, where I celebrate Christmas with my children, " I continued. Yes, I know, emotional overkill, but hey, all's fair in love and war and Xmas shopping.
By this time all five wreaths were in his arms and he was sidling away.
"I want them for a shop window. We have to decorate it to make it look nice. "
I had clearly lost this battle, so I put on my brightest most artificial smile and said, "Go ahead. It is the biggest religious festival of the year for me, but your shop window is clearly far more important, so in the true spirit of Christmas, please be my guest. "
The sarcasm washed right over his head, but the young lady he was with ran after me into the street. "Auntie, Auntie, thank you so much. But we have to make the shop look nice. "
Fast forward a few years to Christmas 2012, and I don't think we would have had to resort to such an undignified tug-of-war over Advent wreaths, because now there are just so many more shops selling merchandise. You can buy lovely ornaments and baubles, and even figurines for the crib, and my local newspaper shop has an enormous range of Christmas wrapping paper. Heck, you can buy tinsel by the yard from roadside vendors now.
Turkey, mince pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake - every year there is more and more seasonal food available. Year after year, nurseries in India have ever bigger displays of Xmas trees and poinsettias.
Yet, and this is only normal, for most of non-Christian India, I think Christmas equals little more than a big dollop of commercialism. Christmas is far and away the biggest religious holiday of the year for Christians, and yes, it does involve the giving of gifts, but there is also a wonderful peace and simplicity at the heart of the festival, much of which gets drowned out by the shopping and tinny carols playing in shopping malls. And that is as true anywhere in the west as in India, by the way.
But if you go back to the origins of Christmas, you find a simple, moving story of the birth of a baby, in the bitter cold of winter, in very humble circumstances.
We have cribs in churches and in many homes, with figures representing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and, of course, the ox and the ass huddling in the same stable to try and keep warm. The spiritual heart of Christmas is not the jolly fat Santa Claus flying through the skies leaving presents, but a tiny baby, simple shepherds and lowly farm animals.
The religious lead-up to Christmas starts four Sundays before the day, as we celebrate week by week the first, second, third and finally fourth Sunday of Advent, with readings and the symbolic lighting of a candle each Sunday. That's why I wanted those wreaths.
On Christmas Eve, the 24th, many Christians go to church for Midnight Mass, where every year the reading from the Bible tells the oh-so-familiar story of the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds and the angels and the arrival of the three Kings.
We also hang up stockings for Santa to fill, and if you are feeling generous, you also leave him a glass of wine and a mince pie. My children are young adults now, so I can confess in public that yes, I used to eat the mince pie and drink the wine, leaving a few crumbs on the plate, to make it look as though Santa had grabbed a quick bite between all those deliveries.
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