With Christmas round the corner, festivity is in the air, people are impatiently waiting to eat, drink & make merry, & to forego their mundane routines, even if it’s just for a day. With such a great excuse for festivity, one can hardly be blamed for skipping their strict health & diet regimens. I had a word with a close friend of mine who happens to be a Catholic from Kerala. He gave me a deep insight into the traditions they follow for Christmas. But before we see how Christmas is celebrated in Kerala, let’s take a look at the history of Christianity in India. St.Thomas was one of the 12 apostles who followed Jesus Christ, who was instructed by Him to spread the word of God. St. Thomas travelled far and wide, reaching even India and landed in Muziris or what is now, approximately in the area of modern day Kodungallur in AD 52. He is said to have converted some of the locals and thence slowly Christianity started spreading. In the 4th century, Thomas of Cana is said to have come to Kerala, and from then onward Christianity flourished. In Kerala, Christmas celebrations are a delightful mix of Syrian Christian, Western Christian & local traditions. Here are some of the simple joys in the way Malayalees celebrate Christmas.
1. Greetings- Mainly children make hand-made cards which are then given to family, friends, neighbours, and whomsoever they wish to. Everyone greets one another after the midnight mass and there are smiles all around (even the grumpiest of neighbours can’t help but break into a smile).
2. Carol’s all the way – Carol singing starts weeks before Christmas. Carols are sung in all local churches, and carol groups from the local churches come to the homes of the congregations. Even individual groups are formed to sing carols. Get into the festive spirit by giving those vocal chords some exercise & joining in some carol singing. After all, ‘tis the season to be jolly!
3. Ho Ho Ho – Need we say more?! The young and old alike would like to meet & greet Santa. The local carol groups would always have Santa accompanying them to various homes and Santa sings and dances; then distributes gifts to the families. Even during Christmas, Santas are in the various churches greeting one and all.
4. Merry Mass – Everyone tries their best to attend the midnight mass. Get into the spirit of Christmas; go ahead & tag along with friends and family for a midnight, morning or evening mass. Attending the mass may trigger a variety of emotions ranging from joy, bliss, to even tears all of which are part of the Christmas spirit!
5. Baubles & Trees- What’s Christmas without the traditional Christmas tree adorned with baubles, snow, angels, candy, et al. Most families start decorating their houses from the first week of December. Many grow the coniferous trees in their gardens or they use the artificial ones. They light up their houses put up wreaths and hang up the traditional Christmas star.
6. Gobble, Gobble – Everyone goes the whole nine yards to make a lavish Christmas spread; delectable plum cakes (the fruits are soaked in wine for almost 41 days ), home-made wine & traditional dishes such as Acchapam cookies, Unniappam, Neyyappam, Kappa stew, Kappa biryani, Chicken or Mutton stews & Appams to name some of the flavoursome dishes. It is only recently that many Malayalees have started making turkey for Christmas. After the midnight mass, it is a tradition that the families then cut the plum cake and drink some of the ambrosial home-made wine. Families send these dishes to their friends, neighbours, and others for breakfast and lunch.
7. Gifts Galore- Everyone loves a good gift! On Christmas many families gift their loved ones and others with plum cake and wine. The gifting tradition was taken from the West. After the mass, kids are given gifts, and many a times, its new clothes that they are given to wear on Christmas day. This is also acts as a good reason for kids to visit the church! Nowadays people gift many other things for Christmas, but traditionally this was how it was done before. Buy gifts for yourself, your loved ones, friends, everyone and anyone! Stash them away or place it under the Christmas tree as it’s done traditionally (a hit with the kids). The sheer number of gifts lying about will create itchy fingers, but patience ya’ll!
8. Spread the cheer- To embrace the spirit of giving, people donate to a charity, visit orphanages, old age homes, etc, or simply spend time with the less privileged (even animals for that matter). To receive a genuine smile (a woof or a meow) of happiness & gratitude from the unfortunate is priceless.
9. Let peace prevail – Malayalees from all over the world make it a point to try and come down to spend time with all their families, relatives and friends on Christmas. They try to ensure that the whole khandan comes together, and resolve to spend some quality time. It is a truly fulfilling experience!
10. Nativity – Families recreate the nativity scene by making their own crib and start making it nearly a month before Christmas. They place paddy, hay, make their own wells, etc in order to capture the actual nativity that took place. They add figurines in the crib. The churches make their own nativity scene as well. Almost every church holds a competition for the best nativity scene. When the carol groups along visit each house along with Santa, they evaluate the cribs and various nativity scenes. The winners are announced at the midnight mass, and gifts are given to the winners.
So if you happen to visit Kerala this Christmas, do make it a point to witness how the families celebrate Christmas first-hand or if you have any Malayalee friends do ask if you can be a part of their celebrations.