The season of red and green tinsels, plum cakes, and snowmen (in our case figures made out of cotton balls and an ample amount of glitter) is here. Christmas, while being primarily a religious festival, is celebrated culturally by people from all walks of life across the world. The happiness of the ‘good news’ announced to the shepherds and the Magi from the East all those years ago has transmuted now to sentiments of forgiveness and good-cheer, an aura we associate particularly with Christmas.
Cakes, carols, and Christmas movies are some of the trademark ways through which Christmas is celebrated. A humble category we often fail to include is Christmas stories and novels. From classics to mysteries to tear-jerkers, books are also a way through which one can get right into the Christmas spirit.
A trip down memory lane
“Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”. No list of Christmas books is complete or even begins without mentioning A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novella was first published in London by Chapman & Hall in 1843, with illustrations by John Leech. The story revolves around Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man who is visited by three ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The ghosts take old Scrooge through his life, trying to make him understand what Christmas is about and how it will all be too late if he doesn’t open his hand and more importantly his heart. Tiny Tim, a crippled toddler, the son of Scrooge’s clerk, is an especially moving figure in the novel. It is his resilience and optimism in the face of his disability and poverty which breaks Scrooge. The story emphasises how Christmas is much beyond a decorated tree, roast chicken and wine; it is a time of family, friendship and renewal.
“Why for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now, I MUST stop Christmas from coming… But HOW?”, the Grinch wonders in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel written in rhymed verse with illustrations. Set in the town of Who-ville, the Grinch hates Christmas. As he makes plans to sabotage the festival, he realises that whatever he may say or do won’t stop Christmas from coming. This small story is yet another classic which makes us look beyond the increasing commercialisation of Christmas to what its true spirit entails.
A dose of mystery and sentiment
Peace and goodwill with a whole lot of blood. These seemed to be the overarching themes in mind when Agatha Christie wrote Hercule Poirot’s Christmas in 1938. If stories of Christmas cheer and joy turn too saccharine, a gory Christmas murder would be the right avenue to turn to. In the novel, we are introduced to Simeon Lee, an invalid old man who invites his entire family to spend Christmas together, under one roof. The drama is centred around him and his sons — Alfred Lee, the ever-devoted son. and his wife Lydia, George Lee, the miserly parliamentarian, his young wife, mama’s boy David Lee, and his sensible wife Hilda, and the black sheep cum prodigal son Harry Lee. Simeon Lee wishes to mend bridges and let bygones be bygones in the spirit of ‘peace and goodwill’. Or so he says. But all is not what it seems when the patriarch is found brutally murdered leaving everyone in shock. Everyone but of course, the bearer of grand mustaches, Hercule Poirot.
If a murder mystery seems rather unconventional, a heart-wrenching tale of a father who does not have much time to live, looking back at his life might seal the deal. In The Deal of a Lifetime, Fredrik Backman tells the story of a father and his son and the ‘women in the grey sweater and folder’ who comes every other night to the cancer ward. The father ponders about his relationship with his son one lonely Christmas. He also looks upon his legacy, having achieved the lengths and depths that one could only dream of, especially when one is from an obscure small town like Helsingborg situated in the southernmost part of Sweden. All this until he is offered the deal of a lifetime. ‘A life for a life’.
The Indian connect
“O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
And at Home they’re making merry ‘neath the white and scarlet berry
What part have India’s exiles in their mirth?”
— writes Rudyard Kipling in his poem Christmas in India. Kipling laments about celebrating Christmas in an unfamiliar landscape among strangers. One wonders what Mr. Kipling would say if he saw Christmas in India now. But which Christmas shall we show him? In a nation as diverse as India, is there ever just one Christmas?
In Indian Christmas, an anthology of essays, hymns and memories edited and contributed to by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle, this very question is addressed in detail through authors who remember their own Christmases and how the region they occupied informed their celebrations, right from the ingredients used in the cake to the church they attended. Pinto and Liddle start off the collection by fondly talking about their childhood memories of Christmas in Bombay and Uttar Pradesh respectively. Pinto recollects the rather emaciated Santa Claus and Jim Reeves records and ponders on the birth of the baby, the reason for the season, a refugee in a foreign land who was turned away from everywhere, while Liddle elaborates on Christmas at her ancestral home (dua ka ghar, the house of prayer).
In the subsequent plethora of essays, different authors describe their experience of the festivities in their respective hometowns — Kerala, Goa, Calcutta, Chennai, Shillong, Chandigarh and so on. The geographical location and social context added its own flair to the Christmases celebrated across India.
India’s pluralist history has a direct bearing on these multi-cultural experiences within Christmas. Manimugdha. S. Sharma in his essay titled ‘How India’s Pluralistic Past Shows the Way Forward’ explains how India has always embraced different cultures and ways of life. While in 1581, Jesuit priests were being hanged by Queen Elizabeth Tudor in her mission to get rid of the Catholics, in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar, Jesuit priests were welcomed and their faith celebrated. Over the years Christianity has flourished alongside Islam and Hinduism and other religions, borrowing and giving from one and another, building up for itself a syncretic character. He ends the essay on a word of caution wherein he refers to the attack on Christmas by vigilante forces and hate groups who denounce the ‘foreign festival’ in the name of God and country. But as Liddle writes, “Indians adopted Christianity, but made it their own”.
Similarly, Christmas, often celebrated on a warm summer morning in the south or in sweater weather (dreams of a White Christmas unfortunately often stay as dreams), is ‘Indian’ precisely because of its cultural variations and will hopefully remain so for years to come.