How Christmas celebrations in India may have spread out of Fort Kochi 

A group of Portuguese explorers are believed to have landed in Kochi on the eve of Christmas in 1500 and the influence of the European power is evident in the way the season’s nights are lit up for the festival, the spirit of community celebrations, and rich food complete with wine and sweets, say Fort Kochi’s history buffs

December 20, 2023 07:35 pm | Updated 07:38 pm IST - KOCHI

A Christmas crib opened on December 9 in front of the Bishop’s House in Fort Kochi.

A Christmas crib opened on December 9 in front of the Bishop’s House in Fort Kochi. | Photo Credit: H. VIBHU

Arrival of the Portuguese on the shores of India early in the 16th Century may have inadvertently helped Fort Kochi become the nucleus of spread of Christmas celebrations as we know it today in India or even across south-east Asia, say Fort Kochi’s history buffs.

Pedro Álvares Cabral, explorer and navigator, arrived in Kochi on the eve of Christmas in 1500 together with a group of Fransiscan missionaries. Since then Christianity in India took a new turn and so did the Christmas celebrations, says Johney Xavier Puthukkattu, Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cochin.

Divergence of dates

Considering the elaborate arrangements and frills attached to it today, there is little description of Christmas celebrations among early Christians in Kerala, he said as he pointed to divergence of dates of Christmas celebrations in some Christian communities as a topic of possible historical investigations.

As Catholics across the world celebrate the 800th year of the first Christmas crib put together by St. Francis Assisi, Paul Thelakat, senior priest of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, says that Christmas celebrations have been very much influenced by the West. The Christmas crib is an example. He said the date of Christmas was determined as December 25 because Caesar Constantine decided to celebrate it on the birthday of Sol Invictus (The Invincible Sun) – the God of the Roman empire.

Last feast of the year

Fr. Thelakat says there is no clarity on Christmas celebrations among St. Thomas Christians in Malabar. It is said that Epiphany (Danaha) and Nativity were celebrated here, but the definite date is not available. But Christmas is described as the last feast of the year, which means it may have been in December. A different date is never heard of here. Perhaps the Chaldeans also followed the decision of emperor Constantine, he added.

Bony Thomas, artist and writer on the lineage and culture of West Kochi, including Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, says that most of what we know as part of Christmas celebrations came ashore with the Portuguese. He says their influence is evident in the way the season’s nights are lit up, the spirit of community celebrations, big feasts and rich food complete with wine and sweets.

He recalled how what is today Fort Kochi turned into the fortified city of Santa Cruz after the model of European cities, complete with all the amenities for a community like a hospice, library and churches. These changes are reflected also in the Christmas celebrations today in various ways.

A fusion cuisine

Charles Dias, former MP and author of the upcoming book ‘Consoado,’ (Supper on Christmas Eve), says that though Christmas celebrations have remnants from the days after the British takeover, the Portuguese gave the celebrations definite contours with Latin prayers, adorations, and cribs. Even the food used today are remnants from those days when a fusion cuisine evolved out of the use of coconut and vinegar, vegetables and meat with the latter dominating the table, he said.

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