“HO HO HO!” Santa is in town – the Christmas season, the holiday reason and the celebration is around. The annual, worldwide celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, followed by the New Year. As date varies according to the Eastern and Western Churches so do the celebration in different parts of the World. It varies depending on the region, religion, ethnicity and cultural background of the people. Here I am with the Christmas or the ‘Boro Din’ celebration from my native city of Kolkata.
Celebrations begin much ahead of the Christmas day in the Christian dominated countries. But in other countries, it lasts for a week from Christmas to the New Year day. It is a Christian festival but is celebrated by all with equal excitement in their own different way. Coming to Kolkata, the city that spread its arms for all, Christmas is a grand event celebrated in its own kind.
The majority of the world celebrates Christmas on 25th of December of the Gregorian calendar while the followers of the Eastern Churches celebrate it on the same day of the Julian calendar that coincides with the 7th of January of the Gregorian calendar.
Christians celebrate the festival in a religious way. The celebration begins with the Orthodox churches following the Nativity fast followed by the Christmastide. Again the Christmastide involves a lot of religious rites with the Christmas Day followed by St. Stephen’s Day on 26th December, Childermas on 28th December, the feast of the Holy Family on 31st December, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and New Year’s Day on 1st January and the Epiphany eve or the Twelfth Night on the 5th of January.
Coming back to Christmas celebration in Kolkata, Christianity came to undivided Bengal along with the Portuguese settlement in Chittagong in the 16th century. Initial Churches were established in Bandel and Dhaka by Jesuit missionaries. Then the region saw the Christian Influence in the form of Roman Catholic. Finally, there was the East India Company that had a long-term and major impact on the region.
William Carey was one such major influential person who came to Bengal in the year 1793. He was a British Baptist Missionary. He faced opposition from the non-Baptist Christian Missionary and had to leave the British Indian territory to the then Danish colony of Frederiknagore (now Serampore). Here he founded the first, degree awarding University the Serampore University and Serampore College. He is also known to translate Ramayana to English and Bible to Bengali, Odiya, Assamese, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit.
Christianity is a deep-rooted and considerably ancient religion of the region. In West Bengal apart from Kolkata, the Christian influence can be equally felt in previous Portuguese, French and Danish colonies in Bandel, Chandannagore and Serampore (located very close to the capital city of Kolkata). When you talk about Christmas in Kolkata you talk about Park Street, Hogg’s Market (popularly known as New Market), St Paul’s Cathedral, Allen Park, Bow Barrack and a few other places.
To the Bengalis, Christmas is more popular as ‘Boro Din’ and it is the festival of all where almost every household either bake or purchase the customary Christmas cake. Kolkata is cosmopolitan in its truest sense and the Bengalis are known to embrace every religion, culture and festival. Thus, Christmas in Kolkata is a non-religious festival of joy in the city of joy.
The city, especially Park Street and the adjoining area lights up a few days before Christmas. Customary decoration in the form of Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly are seen to adorn Churches, Homes, Streets and stalls. Gift and card exchange are also practised by the non-Christians equally.
It is the busy time for the Bakers across the city and neighbourhood. Some names of the old and famous Bakers that comes to mind during this time of the year is Jewish Bakery Nahoum’s near New Market, J N Barua in Bow Barrack, Flury’s in Park Street and a few other scattered in the surrounding.
Apart from the plum cakes, fruit cakes, Dundee cakes, Baba cake and yule logs, there are other Christmas specialities available in many famous restaurants. Restaurants like Moulin Rouge, Trincas and a few others offer the traditional Christmas lunch and dinner buffet comprising of roasted Turkey and Duck along with roasted vegetables, freshly baked bread and mulled wine.
A holiday festive mood is in the air. People are seen to enjoy the day in various ways. Some go for picnicking while some go for a week-long trip to return back to work after New Year. Others love to stay back at home and feast with family and friends. But in the evening most of them turn up to Park Street to enjoy the Christmas carnival.
The Christmas Carnival was conceptualised by the present chief minister of West Bengal Ms Mamata Banerjee and was started by the tourism department of West Bengal in the year 2011. The Christmas Carnival in a much-talked concept among the masses since then and is a debatable topic. People are seen to judge the carnival in their own good or bad way.
Many show their disgust sighting the reasons like mere publicity to increase business keeping aside the traditional sentiments and true flavour of Christmas. They term it as a mockery of the festival. Others support the carnival describing it as the celebration of joy and religious equality. According to them when Christmas is being celebrated in Kolkata why not in Bengali style and in a loud way which is typically liked by many Indians with no exception of the Kolkatans.
Whatever may be the public opinion, Christmas is a celebration of joy and merrymaking. After a few years, I am in Kolkata during this time to witness the hype of the festival and the carnival in Park Street. Santa Claus or St Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra is seen in every house, every shop and every corner either in the form of cutout or sticker or poster and some even live.
Here you may also come across a Bengali Santa clad in white dhoti-kurta and red jacket with a red Christmas cap. When Santa travelled from the chilly western countries to the tropical climate of Kolkata he is ought to shed off his fur jacket and get decked up in the Bengali attire. But the main Santa of the carnival has his jackets on and arrives in a grand way in manual rickshaws leaving behind his reindeer-pulled sledge in the snows.
Apart from Santa the visitors are also seen in red Christmas cap while some in the red devil’s horn (either plain or glowing). I ponder for the possible reason or a traditional link to this personal choice of fashion. A huge number of visitors walk down through Park Street to celebrate the day so vehicle movement is stopped for these days.
With the street becoming a walk-only zone it turns into an open-air party area with live music and performances. Various roadside stalls are melting pot with items starting from the very Christian Cakes to the Muslim Kebabs to Chinese dumplings to Bengali ‘Joynagorer Moya’ to ‘Fuchka’ to Rolls to almost anything and everything in the edible category. Religion, sect, ethnicity, nothing has any bar in this celebration. People from every group sell and people from every group purchase and thus all celebrate.
Christmas themed lighting designed by artisans from Chandannagar adorn the area. Fairy lights, LEDs, neons and stars dazzle in the Park Street area. Waves of visitors descend in the area, some to post the trendy updates on their social media accounts, some to keep their kid’s request, some to drink and dine and some to enjoy the open air party – but all to celebrate on the occasion of Christmas.
The occasional shriek of the enthusiastic groups in the crowd may add to your bewilderment but there is nothing to worry, it is just the crazy young crowd cheering and merrymaking. The excitement peaks when Santa arrives tossing toffees and candies. The crowd rushes to get the perfect selfie with the Santa and the decoration in the backdrop.
Apart from this crazy celebration of Christmas, there are many places in Kolkata and around where the festival is celebrated in a much traditional way. In the nearby St Pauls cathedral (the first Anglican Cathedral outside Britain) midnight masses are held followed by Carols and Choirs by school children. The Churches and the areas with a considerable Christian population are seen decorated with the Nativity scene and Christingles.
School children are seen to perform carols and Nativity plays in many places. The school, colleges, many educational institutions and a few offices remain closed from Christmas to the new year and they enjoy these winter holidays to the fullest. Wishes of “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” is heard everywhere and the corresponding items are for sale in a majority of the shops.
Celebration in every corner, in every house apart from the Christian institutions. People celebrate in their own possible way according to their budget. To some a minimal Santa cap, to some a Santa mask, to some a tiny Christmas tree, to some a piece of Christmas cake is enough to cheer up their holiday season. Economic strata or the grandness of the celebration hardly matters. The joy of the festive mood is all that matters. This is the crazy celebration of Christmas in Kolkata in its own Kolkatan style. And I end my final post of this year wishing my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New year.
Read my previous post on Kolkata.