ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Christmas in India

Christ came to earth that we might enjoy a more abundant life. The people of every land share this hope as they mark the birth among us of Our Savior.

Every evening from the beginning of June, when the monsoons set in, Bombay’s stadium, the Cooperage, is packed. I guess it is no different from any other stadium in the world – yelling crowds urging on their favorites, popcorn vendors, harassed policemen and, of course, all eyes on 22 brawny men battling for football supremacy. But on the 23rd of December all is calm at the Cooperage; only the quiet of young men setting up an altar and canopy, and silent nuns laying out altar linen and beautiful Gothic vestments.

Then comes the 24th of December midnight. The vendors are absent, and attention is riveted on the Cardinal Archbishop of Bombay, resplendent in scarlet, preceded by a long line of altarboys, and flanked by his clergy. Indians love pageantry and pomp when it comes to honoring God. Last year, concelebrating with the Cardinal, were 14 priests, among them two Canadian missionaries expelled from Africa and one American priest, visitors in Bombay, to emphasize the unity of the Church. The priests distributed communion for half an hour, for the Indian takes his religion seriously, at least in its external practice, and very few dream of missing holy communion on Christmas day. The priests have a busy time coping with long confession lines during the days before Christmas.

But there are other preparations, too. Every Christian family has a crib, mostly made by the kids (even not-so-small kids); little boxes with green plants, and brown paper smeared with red mud, and all kinds of details which would astound students of history, but which prove God’s idea of the Incarnation not a bad one at all. Here you find a crib with a well, and oxen all ready to give the Babe a drink; there, all sorts of peculiar animals (depending on the tastes of various members of the family) cluster around the hut door where Joseph and Mary hold the Child. Each one welcomes his or her own Baby Jesus!

In the localities where Catholics predominate we have huge roadside cribs, often hanging between two buildings in the center of a busy street, telling the world that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And, oh yes, the Christmas star, made with loving skill lights up the neighborhood. Any Christian locality on Christmas night is one splendid mass of shining stars hanging over the front doors and from every window.

A week before the feast, Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – hold a beautiful function on Chowpatty sands, Bombay’s largest beach. There, before thousands the Christmas message is told in song and dance. Several choirs of various denominations sing carols in the many Indian languages. A dance troupe transmits the message of God’s love through the medium of Indian ballet. Every English publication, and some others, brings out a Christmas issue. The Archbishop of Bombay is invited to broadcast a Christmas message to the people of Bombay.

The big event of Christmas is midnight Mass. Every parish church has midnight Mass, and everyone tries to attend. Parishes with ample grounds hold Mass outdoors (we don’t have to worry about the cold!) to accommodate the crowds. Christmas cards are the rage not only among Catholics. So is the Christmas tree. It is not uncommon for non-Christians to attend midnight Mass. We are probably unique in that the commentator has to announce again and again, “Catholics, and Catholics alone, may receive holy communion.” For Hindus, too, have a ceremony where a portion of their gift to the temple is returned to them in the form of what is called prasad.

Non-Christian participation at Christmas is confined for the most part to its social aspects, namely, the Christmas evening dance, or parties at home. It is a prime example of the westernized Church of India that makes many Indians consider our Church a foreign importation. The Indianizing movement especially in the liturgy wishes to give Christmas an Indian flavor; this is done exclusively in convents and small communities for the bulk of India’s Catholics are not yet ripe for such innovations. The current move to restore Christ to Christmas will be a powerful aid to the Church in India; here, by copying the west, the Christmas feast has been overlaid with a great deal of misleading legend surrounding Santa Claus. The message of universal love expressed in gift-giving is often forgotten as the affluent plan their Christmas entertainments.

Dr. Dorothy Baker, a native of Albany, N.Y., is director of the Institute of Social Service in Bombay, India, a country she has worked in since 1958. Miss Baker is a member of the religious congregation, Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

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