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Christmas in 'God's Own Country'



Indigo’s flight from Pune to Kochi lands at Kochi at an ungodly hour, almost close to midnight. My reliable driver was at the airport and we started the long, arduous drive along the winding roads, touching Perumbavoor and Muvattupuzha on the way to Kottayam.

The streets and shops were well-lit and decorated for Christmas. The groups of children moving from house to house singing Christmas carols reminded me of my childhood and the many splendoured pleasures of the Christmas season of those days. My friends and neighbourhood children would gather together and practice some stock Christmas songs in Malayalam. Kerala has its own version of Santa Claus, referred to as ‘Christmas Grand Father’ or ‘Christmas Appooppan’, scantly resembling his western cousin just in the cap, beard and robe. A senior among us would be in charge of orchestrating the beginning and end of songs with a whistle. He was also in charge of collecting the monetary contributions from the houses we would visit. Collecting money was, in fact, the major motivation behind the yuletide exuberance. After the event, the group departs singing a song thanking for the contribution and wishing the household well.

The Christian Church in Kerala is as old as Christianity. The faith was established by St. Thomas in AD 52 and nurtured by the early converts, who came to be called Nazranis, the follower of Christ of Nazareth. Saint Thomas Christians were also called Syrian Christians, and used to celebrate Christmas on January 7th since they followed the Julian calendar, which differs from the Gregorian calendar that is widely used today. However, it is believed that the December date was chosen by the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century as it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was a popular pagan festival that celebrated the Roman god Saturn. The church leaders wanted to establish a Christian festival that would replace the pagan celebrations.

The Twelve Days of Diónysos [1] is one of the great festivals of the ancient Greeks, commencing on December 25th, and the festivities continue for twelve more days. The early Christian church-fathers had great difficulty in suppressing the loyalty of people for ancient pagan festivals. The solution they found was to replace them with Christian holidays, with similar themes. The myth of the virgin birth of Dionysos from Persephone was apparently integrated with the story of the birth of Jesus [2].

Kerala is home to many gods and their devotees. Peaceful coexistence of many religions and their sub-sects in such a small place makes Kerala truly God’s own country. Like Onam, a predominantly Hindu festival, celebrated by all Keralites, Christmas celebrations in Kerala transcend religious boundaries. This unique inter-religious reach out may be the most defining attribute of Kerala that confirms Kerala’s status as God’s own country.

Christianity in Kerala is fragmented into many denominations, each with its own liturgy. The oldest are the Syrian Christians established by St Thomas in the first century, now fragmented into the Jacobite and the Orthodox churches and the Mar Thoma church. The Catholic church began with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Anglican Church with the British. Many evangelical and Pentecost groups co-exist with these old churches. In keeping with orthodox religious tradition of suffering before celebration, the first 24 days of December, leading up to Christmas, are austere and restrained. Most traditional families observe Noyambu, or the 25-day lent for advent prior to Christmas. No meat or dairy is consumed. Christians are mandated to cleanse themselves to receive Infant Jesus. The period of abstinence concludes with the midnight Church service across Kerala. The two most important events in the Christian calendar are the Christmas Holy mass and the Easter Holy Mass the former about advent and the latter marks the culmination of the Passion Week.

People make cribs and Christmas trees in their homes and Churches. Irrespective of the denominations, Christians celebrate Christmas in an atmosphere of gaiety. Churches and Christian households transform themselves from the third week of December. Not to be outdone, shops, malls, restaurants and almost all business entities join the bandwagon. The infectious makeover is complete by the Christmas week. It’s truly remarkable to see the night skies transforming over the week with countless glittering stars and decorative lights. This festive look will outlast Christmas into the New Year.

Christmas is the season of plum cakes, the unique cake that is baked and sold in hordes across Kerala during the Christmas season. Raisins and dry fruits, soaked in the chosen alcohol like wine, rum, or brandy, is a key ingredient. Home-made plum cakes can be a heavenly experience for those who can visit Christian households. Many families keep secret the knowledge about a combination of ingredients, and are often passed on from the matriarch to her daughters- and daughters-in-law. The cakes are baked four months before Christmas. So the fruits, now in the cake, go through another cycle of maturing. “The grape juice poured at first, while stewing, gets inside the fruits, making it all ‘plummy’. Then the juices within the fruits get to the crumb of the cake,” according to experts [3]. A plum cake unique to Kerala is the Mattanchere Spice mature plum cake, the authentic creation of Pandhal Cake Shop in Mattancherry. “Infused with honey-soaked fruits and left to mature for months, the iconic spice cake is baked to a rich brown colour and then sealed to lock in the moisture, flavour and fragrance,” says its website [4]. Pandhal Cafe has practiced and perfected the art of baking the perfect plum cake been mastering the art of cake baking for the past three decades. Pandhal website claims that the cake is a culinary tribute to the renowned Mattancherry spice market of Kochi.

Feasting associated with Christmas celebrations is an event. If the Onam feast is an extensive vegetarian spread, Christmas celebration is an equally lavish non-vegetarian spread. Starting with Appam’ (Hoppers) accompanied by varieties of meat stews for breakfast, followed by lunch and dinner lavished with meat and seafood, Christian households are places to be in for those who are foodies. Amidst these elaborate meals, one can splurge on plum cakes and homemade wines. Each household has its own way of preparing dishes and traditional families have adopted modern cooking implements to deliver age-old tastes. Food lovers may do themselves a favour by stationing themselves at ‘Homestays’ and restaurants that serve traditional Keralite non-vegetarian fare.

The Christmas cards used to be an inevitable part of Christmas. People of all ages, young and old alike, send beautiful greeting cards to their loved ones far away. With instant messaging and email, the greeting card has, unfortunately, taken a back seat.

Christmas is never complete without wines. The traditional wine-making process begins months before so that the tastiest, delightful wines are ready by the Christmas dawn. All varieties of fruits are experimented upon in this process. Strange wines made from nutmeg and jamun are delicious. During Christmas, Crib making contest are also very popular. People painstakingly collect fine objects and small knick-knacks to prettify their crib comes out to be the winner.

Christmas season exemplifies the enticing tagline, ‘God’s Own Country, created by Walter Mendez of Mudra, in the late 80s [5]. The lush green, wet canopy over the state, the backwaters, fertile land sandwiched between the virgin beaches on the Arabian Sea coast and the emerald western ghats and an eternally mild climate adequately justify the tagline ‘God’s own country’ for Kerala.

References

[2] D.M. Murdock and Acharya S, https://stellarhousepublishing.com/dionysus/

[3] Mahima Anna Jacob, The New Indian Express, 10th December 2022, https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/kochi/2022/dec/10/a-slice-of-history-2526622.html

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