Detached from puritanical strictures and pressures of upper-crust propriety, Christmas in the slums and Dalit Christian neighbourhoods of Bangalore is free, vibrant, carnivalesque and inclusive.
Anybody who has lived in the city long enough knows the difference between Christmas in Viveknagar, Seppings Road and L.R. Nagar, and Christmas in the more elite old-Cantonment areas such as Frazer Town, Richmond Town and Cox Town. The difference is what separates Jim Reeves from Rajnikanth.
In the subaltern neighbourhoods, the festive spirit spills on to the streets, enters homes without knocking, and keeps Christians and non-Christians swinging till the sun comes up.
It is the same boys and girls who would go door-to-door, receipt book in hand, for Vinayaka Chaturthi and Christmas to collect donations for a crib.
Religious identity is not a major issue in the slums; indeed many families comprise Christians and Hindus.
Social commentator and activist Cynthia Stephen says that these blurring of lines happen at many levels in subaltern communities and are more visible during Christmas. “Building cribs is a strictly Catholic tradition. But in the slums of the city, Protestant children too join in and nobody raises eyebrows,” she says.
Among Thigala-speaking Dalit Christian communities in outlying villages such as Begur, Byrathi, Mestripalya and Gottigere, Christmas practices are decidedly communitarian.
Describing a custom that resembles Bakrid, Dalit Christian activist Alphonse G. Kennedy says: “A few weeks before Christmas, a few Thigala families get together and buy a cow or a goat and feed it till it is plump. On Christmas, the animal is slaughtered and the meat distributed to everyone in the village, irrespective of religion. There are also community feasts.”
On Christmas Day, groups of children walk into any house they please and demand that the elderly give them a tip. “Even if it is just a rupee, nobody, however poor, refuses,” he says and adds that giving money to children is considered a form of blessing.
The Thigala Christians also have some practices such as drawing rangolis, purifying the house with cow dung, and making “obbattu”.
NGO activist Anita Cheria, however, sees a disturbing new trend.
She says the growing economic hardships have hit the slum communities the hardest.
“And this shows up starkly during festivals, which are a lot more Spartan these days. There is less meat and fewer new clothes,” she says.
The growth of communalism and the attacks against Christians have also left the community feeling insecure. “They are much more guarded, and avoid cooking beef during community feasts,” she says.
Ms. Stephen says that fearing a backlash, Christians in slums have also cut down on firecrackers, dancing and loud music.