Over the last few weeks, there have been several covert and overt attacks against Christmas day. We have heard about how the VHP and other Hindu factions in Uttar Pradesh wanted to convert Muslims and Christians on Christmas day! Similarly, just 10 days before Christmas, the BJP-led Union Human Resource Development Ministry proposed that December 25th be dedicated to the public celebration of the birthdays of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malviya by observing “good governance day”—which means schools having the CBSE syllabus may have to remain open during Christmas day. Then, in Telangana, the new government forced schools to declare a one-week State holiday for Bathukamma celebrations, which led several schools in the State to cancel Christmas vacations to accommodate those extra holidays.
To these real-life scenarios, let us imagine if Christmas was suddenly banned in India. Imagine that every single symbol associated with the festival was erased from the nation’s vocabulary. So, no more Christmas greetings, no nativity scenes, no wise men, no carol singing, no Christmas trees, and no Rudolph or his master Santa Claus. Imagine!
One Indian Christian response to this imaginary ban could be to shrug shoulders and move on. This view would come from those who criticise the celebration of Christian festivals and reject highlighting of special sacred days. These Christians argue that “we must remember Jesus every day,” “festivals have pagan roots” or even that “Christmas is not the real birth day of Jesus.”
Another response to this hypothetical ban would be to mourn—but mainly for the loss of the entire Christmas package. Some Christians, found mainly in urban centres, enjoy everything about Christmas. They are not necessarily secular, but they embrace the secular with the sacred with equal fervour. Shopping for gifts, decorating trees, Santa Claus dress-ups, baking cakes, singing carols (my grandmother used to listen to the Jim Reeves Christmas album on her old record player) are as much part of the Christmas festival as going to church, spending time with family and listening to the Christmas Gospel.
A third group of Christians would mourn the loss of the opportunity to evangelise. For these Christians, the loss of Christmas would mean fewer opportunities to preach the Gospel since Indians seem to be most curious about Jesus during the Christmas season.
A fourth group, represented by some Christian intellectuals, look for ways to make Christmas less “western” and more “Indian” (whatever Indian means; either Hindu, Muslim or even Dalit). For these Christians, I suspect, a ban on Christmas would be desirable because it could force all Indian Christians to reinterpret Christmas in a completely “Indian” way.
I talked to several pastors and friends to find out how they actually viewed and celebrated Christmas in their local contexts. Those I talked to did not fit neatly in any category, though views for and against Christmas were evident. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to represent only those who considered Christmas as relevant and meaningful. I have highlighted their stories so that we can appreciate the diversity of Indian Christianity and also recover a sense of why Christmas should be important to us all. Hopefully, it may even inspire some of our churches to come up with new ways of celebration, to explore greater relevance of Christmas for the people around us.
Story 1: A Church in Chitradurga, Karnataka
One friend reminisced about his days growing up in a missionary home in Chitradurga, a small town in Karnataka. The church used to meet in their home, and so, during Christmas, their house was decorated with a Christmas tree and with store-bought decorations. The tree was a Casuarina tree that in Karnataka most closely resembles the traditional western Christmas trees.
The church would organise a roadside programme (much like how many Hindu communities celebrate festivals on by-lanes under a shamiana). The programme featured a Christmas play and preaching. Other Christmas festivities included visiting Christian homes singing Christmas carols, during which time a person dressed as Santa Claus would accompany the carol singers distributing sweets to children.
The highlight, for my friend, was when each year the church would build a huge Christmas star. It would be made out of bamboo, and inside there would be a coconut shell that housed a candle. The church members would walk from house to house singing carols, with the star held as a banner, leading the way.
My friend recalls that as a youngster, he didn’t remember anyone asking questions whether the symbols used were “Christian” or even “western”. However, he did remember how his father would go through great pains to point to the true spiritual meaning of Christmas and relate it always to the Cross and Easter. He also recalls that his father would also preach against ostentatious celebrations. This was in the context of families who were known to take huge loans during their festivals—to buy clothes, vessels, sweets and gifts—but then for the next few months they would be in debt unable to afford food. Christmas with austerity!
Story 2: A Church in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai (Maharashtra)
Another friend recalled how in a Mumbai church he pastored, they decided to take the gospel message to non-Christians. In contrast to the amount of time and effort churches spent to produce Christmas programmes for Christian audiences, his church decided that it would be better to invest in those who do not come to church.
In Mumbai, it is quite common for Apartment Societies to celebrate Hindu festivals and even perform pujas on their premises. So, this church approached an Apartment Society for permission to celebrate Christmas on their grounds. The Society was very open to the idea.
Interestingly, the church involved the Society members to participate in the Christmas play. Children, even grown-ups, who did not even know about Jesus, were given roles to enact the birth, death and resurrection! Over 200 people, who had never been to a church before, showed up.
The toughest decision, my friend recalls, was to exclude “Santa Clause” from the programme. He says that despite pressure from the audience, they kept the message simple, and so by keeping “Santa Claus” out, they were sending a clear message that Christmas was only about Jesus.
Story 3: A Church in Wanaparthy, Telangana
In a large church in Wanaparthy, near Hyderabad, the pastor confronted the church with the question: “What is the point of singing in Christian homes when the lost need to hear the message?” In response, the church adopted a balance for Christmas.
Carol singing was replaced with open-air evangelism and the distribution of tracts. The rest of the Christmas programme remained unchanged. They had a cultural programme on Christmas Eve in which they invited “poor people” and distributed gifts. Then, on Christmas morning, the service featured carols and a Christmas sermon. The church was also decorated “beautifully” with familiar store-bought decorations.
Something unique about this church’s Christmas programme is that local politicians of the region have, over the years, made it a point to participate. On Christmas day, all major political parties, yes including the BJP, set up shamianas in the church compound. They each bring a large Christmas cake as well. After the service, the pastor and elders meet the political party workers, cut the Christmas cake, and then pray for and “bless” each of them.
Story 4: Villages in Ukhrul District, Manipur
In the villages of Ukhrul district in Manipur, Christmas is celebrated over several days. On December 22, the churches devote the day for decorating the church; with “Christmas-appropriate” ornaments. Then, on December 23, there is an Inauguration Service, which features preaching and special songs. The church members then go to each others’ homes for carol singing.
On Christmas Eve, there is a mid-night service in the village community hall. This service features dramas, cultural programmes and even the sharing of jokes. Some even cut a birthday cake for Jesus! Typically, a “Father Christmas” kind of figure appears to distribute gifts.
The next day, on Christmas, there is a traditional morning service, which features the preaching of a Christmas sermon. Later that day, or the next, the churches organise games or sporting events. On the following day, a final service is held to mark the end of Christmas festivities. All these programmes are done in the local language.
The mood is of complete celebration. The goal is not only to reflect on Christmas, but also to share in the joy of the season.
Story 5: A Church in the Outskirts of Bangalore
Finally, in a small church in the outskirts of Bangalore, the pastor states that he personally does not celebrate Christmas. However this year he encouraged the church to use the opportunity to evangelise.
Over the past year, this English-speaking church had been embracing a ministry towards Kannada-speaking village children. As a result, the traditional annual Christmas programme of the church was replaced with a programme produced for and by the Kannada-speaking children (and their Sunday School teachers). The goal was to make these children the centre of the programme and then to invite the families to hear a Christmas-gospel message.
In addition, this church went carol singing to non-Christian and nominal Christian homes (friends that the Church members knew). This visitation was accompanied by prayer for the families, and the giving of gifts like a Bible and sweets for the family.
Finally, the Christmas celebrations ended with a potluck Christmas lunch in which families, who the carol singers visited, were invited to join.
I have reported just five stories. There are countless more. There is immense diversity across India in how Christians celebrate Christmas. As these churches balance their evangelistic concerns with Christian celebration, their contexts have shaped their priorities and emphases.
Returning to the real-life challenges that several Indian Christians today are having to face, it is clear that for many, Christmas matters. Christmas is important enough for Hindu fundamentalists to target. It is important enough for non-Christians to attempt to provide new meaning. The need for Christians to recover and promote the “true” meaning of the festival is urgent.
So what is the best way to celebrate Christmas and hold on to its “true” meaning? Perhaps there is no “best way”, but I think there are certainly better ways to construct a Christmas celebration that is meaningful for our Church members and also relevant to our society. I offer just a few suggestions that could help churches explore their own alternatives for the future seasons to come:
Celebration must precede Evangelism
Christmas has a larger Christian message that must not be suppressed. Nevertheless, for those who naturally use Christmas for evangelism, I would suggest that the evangelistic motivation must come out of a genuine celebration and joy of being reminded of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. The idea that Christmas is for mission, is an attractive one, especially in the Indian multi-religious context. Yet, our celebration must be honest. There’s no point in preaching about Christmas if it remains meaningless to us. Why indeed should non-Christians share in the “joy” of this season, if we don’t feel or experience it?
Within this, for Indian Christians, Christmas rightly extends beyond Christmas day to the entire season. In fact, the whole month of December can be celebrated.
It allows for a longer and more sustained interaction with the Church members and our non-Christian neighbours.
Further, Christmas as we have seen, is a great opportunity for a church to work together, celebrate together, to get everyone involved. There is little point if the celebrations are limited to the pastoral team, and the congregation merely attends a service. Making a Christmas star, participating in singing, feasts can all be avenues of togetherness.
Explore a relevant Indian meaning for Christmas
Inversely, Christmas must be more than simply a time to celebrate. It is also about mission; about taking the good news to others. Yet the way the good news is proclaimed must be relevant to the people. Many of us enjoy Christmas symbols like carols and decorated trees. But I don’t think this should stop us from thinking about other ways to celebrate our festivals. The use of diyas or rangolis to decorate our homes and churches, for instance, could potentially help provide a way to talk to our curious neighbours. Even the use of a “love feast”, like the Ramzan/Ramadan feasts for Muslims, is an opportunity to invite neighbours and friends (not just our own family) for special Christmas lunches or dinners.
I would further urge that we “problematise” the use of “Santa Clause”/“Father Christmas”. This means that we should not use Santa Clause in church programmes without thinking seriously about why we are doing it. If we do choose to have Santa, then we should also correct the view that Christmas is about Jesus, not Santa.
To illustrate this, I provide a practical example of how to replace Santa with Jesus—a Hindi Christian version of Jingle Bells! The words below narrate the story of Jesus’ birth by using the Jingle Bells tune. Anyone can use these words, though it may need a little bit of syllable-juggling to match the actual tune. It could be a tool (especially for Hindi speakers) to Christianise one of the most secular Christmas carols, but it could also provide a template for how we can rethink the celebration of the birth of our Lord, in India.
A Christian Jingle bells (in Hindi)
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Hum sab yeh sune
Ki Yeshu Christ ayen hain Hum sabhi ke liye (hey!) Jingle bells, jingle bells, Hum sab yeh sune
Ki Yeshu Christ ayen hain Hum sabhi ke liye Prabhu Yeshu Masih Swarg se aye the Bethelehem mein Paida hue the
Swarg dooton ne kaha Gadariyon ko
Ke aaj ke din woh ayen hain Ab jhoomo aur gaayo (Ki!…) Jingle bells, jingle bells…
In closing, Merry Christmas everyone! Or as we say in some part of North India, Bada din Mubarak! May this season be a blessing to you and your neighbours!
(ps. Thank God no one has banned the Christmas season, just yet!)