Down Memory Lane History & Culture

70 years ago on Christmas Eve

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Christmas Eve 1949 was as cold as ever. The manger had been set up in the Agra Catholic Cathedral aisle and in the neighbouring Christian bustee of Padritola the spirit of Christmas was at its peak. The scene is worth replicating: Jajja Bua sat in front of her house watching the fun as the tipplers were up to their antics. Cyprian had put on a petticoat and went about kneeling in front of everybody saying. “Bua mauf karna” (pardon me sister). Master Sahib had discarded his kameez-pyjama for a serge suit in which he strode up and down with the energy that only a few pegs can impart.

Fog had descended early on the bustee, set up by the early missionaries in the 18th century, some say even earlier, when the Apostolic See extended right up to Tibet from Agra during the Mughul period. The residents were Indian Christians but the names Latin. Pachipico, Verencio, Bitus, Linus, Lucas, Bibiana, Veronica, Valentiana, Sanfroza, Fidelis, Fosca, Filgensia, Bonavantura – and any others that you can think of. If a Roman had visited the place he would have hardly believed that he was thousands of miles away from home. They all knew Latin, at least enough to follow the Mass and give the appropriate responses to the priest, including the Gregorian chant. In such a setting the carols were in Latin too. They sang Adeste Fidelis, and other Christ Nativity hymns, each trying to outdo the other with the correct emphasis and as resounding a voice as possible.

That evening at the brick-kiln near the bustee gate sat a group of singers rehearsing for the Mass. In between gulps of rum they rendered each line with the proper stress, applauding those who excelled. Jargi played the harmonium, Stanislaus the dholak and Yonnus the gypsy drum while Lazarus, Seraphine, Francis and Yakoub formed the choir. In a little room near by Lucas, a blind member of the Third Order of clerics, put on his habit and silver crucifix while humming a sacred rhyme in keeping with the occasion.

But unaffected by all the tamasha around, a young girl Virginia rehearsed the part of the Virgin for the Nativity play the next day. She had the face of the Madonna and the natural piety that made her look the right choice for the coveted role.

In another quarter the old priest Father Daniel had been prevailed upon to sample the amber stuff in preference to the “tharra” or country brew he had to make do with in his rural Mathura parish of Chandu-ka-Nagla, some 70 kilometres away from the city. Reluctantly he drank for he never wanted to doze off during Mass and give offence to the Archbishop. “Remember”, he said, “the story of the priest who slept during Christmas service. The poor man has to still attend all the midnight Masses down the centuries for the one lapse.”

“But Father you are different,” they all cooed and Padri Daniel beamed in appreciation. Thus in every house and lane people were in a merry mood until the church bells announced that Midnight Mass was to start in half an hour. That changed the whole scene. Everybody tried to hurry. Cyprian discarded the petticoat. Jarji left the harmonium to rush to the church where he was supposed to be the sacristan, Jajja Bua put on her new skirt and jacket, Master Sahib brushed up his hair and suit, Father Daniel used his walking stick —which was more like a lathi — to good effect to reach the sacristy on time, and the girl who was supposed to play the Virgin Mary changed her clothes and make-up to look like Christ’s mother.

At the stroke of midnight when the venerable Italian Archbishop Vanni raised his voice in the Gloria hymn, there was a loud report as a cracker burst and joy bells rang out to convey the news of the birth of the Saviour. A priest placed the image of the Holy Infant in the manger and the choir took up the “Glory to God” refrain.

Mass over, people wished each other despite the misty night and bitter cold. The following day was spent in merriment and the evening saw the Nativity play being enacted, with Virginia playing her part well. But there was a big commotion after the play ended. Virginia was nowhere to be found. She had slipped away with her lover.

The bustee was in turmoil for several months until the two returned, but Virginia was never allowed to play the coveted role of Mary again.

Virginia is no more — and so also many of those who enlivened that evening. But the Yuletide scene at Padritola is much the same though the actors are different and a boy with a cherub’s face rings the bells at midnight to proclaim the birth of Christ in Bethlehem when Caesar Augustus ruled half the world and Agra was a part of the Braj Mandal of Lord Krishna. He too like Jesus, was born at midnight a thousand or more years before him to Devaki and Vasudeva during the reign of the tyrant Kansa.

The writer is veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 8:29:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/70-years-ago-on-christmas-eve/article30378698.ece

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