Christmas in India is a largely religious holiday, with the church playing a major role in the celebrations. Advent Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, and the beginning of the Advent season. On this day, churches and households begin planning their services, decorations, and food.
The Christian population in India is relatively small, as only 2.3% of the nation is Christian. However, as the population of the country is over 1 billion, there are approximately 25 million Christians in India. The communities with the most Christians are Mumbai, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Mizoram.
Indian festivals are always celebrated with plenty of lights and colors. During the Christmas season, churches, homes, stores, and malls are draped in multicolored twinkling fairy lights, paper streamers, candles, and poinsettia flowers.
Instead of the traditional pine tree, many families decorate banana and mango trees with lights and ornaments instead. Some drape cotton wool over their Christmas trees to imitate snow. Many decorations and ornaments are handmade, with stars commonly adorning homes and streets.
Nativity scenes, called Christmas cribs, are an especially important part of the Christmas decorations, with a bit of competition in neighborhoods and between churches as to which crib is most elaborately decorated with lights and scenery. At midnight on Christmas Eve, baby Jesus is reverently placed in the scene.
In Southern India, Christians place small oil-burning clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes to symbolize that Jesus is the light of the world.
In Northwest India, the tribal Christians of the Bhil folk sing carols and tell the Christmas story every night for a week throughout surrounding villages.
In Southwest India, in the state of Kerala Were, traditional Catholics fast from December 1st until the midnight mass on December 24th, Christmas Eve.
Most of the nation’s Christmas traditions are found in the region of Goa, where many western Christmas customs are practiced as well, like singing carols, decorating Christmas trees, and baking fruit cake.
Christmas is celebrated with the baking and giving of a special set of sweets, called kuswar, to neighbors, friends, and family. These include fruitcakes, rose cookies, kidiyo (deep fried curly dough balls dusted in icing sugar), sweet dumplings called neurio stuffed with palm sugar, dry fruit and sweet grated coconut, and sesame seeds, dodol (toffee with coconut and cashew), pathekaan (savory banana chips), crisp challis (round deep-fried savories made with lentils), and cardamom and cashew macaroons. Making these sweets is a fun family affair.
Staples of the Christmas Eve dinner include dukra maas, or pork, and chicken curries, roast turkey, as well as sannas, or steamed rice cakes. After dinner, the whole family walks to church for the midnight mass service. Afterwards, church bells ring to announce that Christmas Day has arrived.
In recent years, the celebration of Christmas has been adopted by the non-Christian communities of India, and more secular traditions have become more common, including the exchanging of presents and Santa Claus. In India, Santa delivers presents to children from a horse-drawn cart. Because many different languages are spoken in India, he’s known as ‘Christmas Baba’ in Hindi, or ‘Baba Christmas’ in Urdu (Father Christmas), ‘Christmas Taathaa’ in Tamil and ‘Christmas Thatha’ in Telugu (Christmas Old Man), ‘Natal Bua’ in Marathi (Christmas Elder Man), and ‘Christmas Papa’ in Kerala.
Christians in India also celebrate Epiphany on January 6th, which commemorates the visitation of the magi to the baby Jesus.