Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas in India

Households Words Vol 5, edited by Charles Dickens, in its edition of 1851, carries this description of Christmas celebrations in India (link):


There is anomaly in the very sound. Christmas in the heart of the land, where millions fall in idolatrous worship before the rude images of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu - and where hundreds of thousands of the followers of Mahomed scoff at the promises of the Redeemer! Christmas - identical in English minds with frost and snow, and crisp holly - in a clime where the scorching rays of the sun eternally pierce the very marrow of man, and penetrate the very bowels of the earth!
And were India solely tenanted by the Hindoo and the Mussulman, — had the zealous missionaries and propagandists , who followed the fortunes of Albuquerque and Vasco de Gama, borne the cross to the shores of Hindostan, —- had the French Abbés who enjoyed the protection of Lally and Dupleix failed to till the field of proselytism — had England never played her part in the revelation of (Christian truths — to this moment no voice would be heard to tell with impunity, on the blessed anniversary, how herald angels sang “glory to the new-born king”. 

But, the tide of European conquest, and, better still, the tide of European civilisation , has carried to the benighted land knowledge, and a large spirit of toleration; and now, from Cape Comorin to the farthest northern confines of the Punjaub , the cross is recognised by thousands who gladly accept its guarantee of salvation. In Western India, and in many parts of the Peninsula, the peasantry have adopted the Roman Catholic faith: imperfectly taught, however, and rudely administered by the degenerate descendants of the early Portuguese settlers. At all the Presidencies, there are handsome Romish churches, and still more chaste and beautiful edifices dedicated to Protestant worship. In many parts of the large towns, the eye can take in, at a single view, a Pagoda, a Mosque , a Protestant church, and a Catholic chapel. Sixty thousand Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotchmen, scattered over India; and five hundred thousand of the half-castes or country-born, in whose veins some British blood flows and throbs, together with a few hundred natives, are of the Protestant persuasion. And every day sees their number and the beneficent effects of their example, and the teaching of their ministers, augment. 



Is there, then, anything so very anomalous in the connection of the idea of Christianity with idol worshipping India? Or can it be a matter of surprise that Christmas Day should be observed throughout the localities tenanted by Europeans, and (so called) Portuguese, with peculiar interest and solemnity?


At once the season of worship and rejoicing, Christmas in India, and more especially at the Presidencies, abounds with interesting features.
It is early morning; the sun is up and Christians of all classes are afoot. The bells of all the places of Christian worship are summoning to prayer. Hurrying along the roads and across the maidauns, or esplanades, the Portuguese clerks and ayas  (nurses and waiting-women) attired in their best cottons, wend their way to mass, to celebrate the glorious Nativity, and behold the image of Nossa Senora. The gorgeous paintings which decorate the massive religious structures in Italy, Austria, Spain and Portugal, are wanting; but, there are other types which equally address themselves to the vulgar sense. After mass, at many chapels and churches, a little bed is exhibited, and, within, reposes an effigy of the Virgin mother bearing the infant Jesus. Crowds rush forward to render homage to the image. It is kissed by thousands, and bedewed with the tears of joy and gratitude. Holy water is at a premium. The vast congregations return homewards the better and the happier for the annual commemoration. Away from the chief towns, and more especially along the Malabar coast, the small primitive chapels are thronged by the rustic Christians bearing offerings to the poor and worthy Padre’, in the shape of wheat sheaves, fruits, cheeses, conserves, and whatever their own poverty will permit. Herein, their offerings resemble the contributions of the Irish peasantry to Father Luke or Father Brady.  


While early service is performing in the Roman Catholic places of worship, the servants of the Protestant householder are busy testifying their respect for “master.” By dawn, the portico of his house has been hung with festoons of marigolds or Mogree (the Indian Jasmine). Wreaths and branches of laurel —- the tropical substitute for holly — adorn the columns of his verandah, and the entrances to his rooms. Now, “master,” or the saheb, has breakfasted, and the head-servant announces that the rest of the domestics claim permission to pay their respects. What procession is this? Is a marriage-feast toward? Behold the sircar, or clerk, who keeps the saheb’s accounts! Attended by a coolee, or porter, he makes his salaam, and lays before his employer a huge rooee or seher fish, a plum-cake charmingly frosted with sugar-candy, a copper tray of almonds and raisins, two vast cauliflowers , and a nosegay. His offering is graciously accepted, and a small present cancels the obligation. Now comes the Khetmudghar, or body-servant. He has brought a leg of mutton, some oranges, a smaller cake , and a quantity of kissmiss -— the small Sulltana raisin from the shores of Persia. Kissmiss  whence the word? Has it been adopted by the Hindoos, because it is acceptable at Christmas? We never could divine the etymology. Kissmiss is a pretty dessert fruit to play with -—- and isn’t it suggestive of the standard joke of the old Quihye? He accidentally on purpose rolls a mango towards the fruit plate, and exclaims with a chuckle, “See how naturally man goes to Kissmiss!” The children laugh; and a faint smile plays about the lips of the adults, who have heard the veteran jest a score of times. The Khetmudghar is dismissed with a present. Anon comes the Sirdar bearer, the tailor, the washerman — even the poor mehtur (sweeper), each with the Christmas present-— and each receives a suitable douceur or buksheish -—- often pronounced buxis , and so suggesting the notion that we have borrowed the term and converted it into “boxes.”
Blessed and blessing, the master now dismisses his domestics, and the carriage is ordered to the door to carry the family to church. Service is performed with the extra solemnity suitable to the occasion. The church is garlanded with laurel and other evergreens; an appeal is made to the charitable feelings of the congregation; and as the organ peels the final voluntary, the bank-notes, and the silver coin, are freely dropped into the churchwarden’s plate, to provide food and clothing for the indigent of all castes and classes.


Home! and the family are greeted at the door by visitors, native and European, of the highest grades. More cakes, more fish, more legs of mutton, more oranges, more almonds and raisins, crowd the hall and staircases.
The question is, how to dispose of all this perishable matter; for Khansumagee, the butler, takes care that all these supplies shall not interfere with his usual bazaar arrangements. _ He has, in anticipation, made the market for the day. So, when the children are satisfied, the perishable presents are given to the poor.


 As evening closes in, the house of each family of respectability opens its hospitable doors to the reception of friends; and the roast beef and the plum-pudding, and the mince pies, the port wine and the champagne, attest the attachment of the English to old home honoured usages. The glass goes round; good wishes are exchanged; many a thought is directed to friends and relatives at a distance, and the day closes much as it closes in England. In Calcutta, fires are burnt in English grates in the months of December and January; and although a handsome bouquet of roses decorates the drawing-room table and the chilfoniers , there is a wintry feel about the atmosphere; and as the chairs are drawn round the fire-place, and the whiskey punch is brewed, the cherished idea of home on Christmas Day is suitably and completely realised. 


 

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