by Louise Anderson
Christmas is one of the biggest Christian festivals and in South Asia, it celebrated by Christians as well as non-Christians. Though celebrated traditionally on the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus Christ annually, this is something that is itself not mentioned in the Bible. The year of His birth has been hotly debated and ranges between 7 BC and 2 BC. The word Christmas comes from the union of the two words ‘Christ’ and ‘Mass’, meaning the day the Mass of Christ is held and marks the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Somewhere in the 4rd Century BC, Pope Julius I officially declared that the celebration of the birth of Jesus would be on the 25th of December. In India Christmas is celebrated by all Indian Christians traditionally and is accompanied by attending the mass at church, and celebrating with family and friends. The festive cheer prevails in homes, markets and shops which are decorated and lit with the Christmas tree as an important feature.
Like much of 2020, Christmas was very different for us all this year. In some ways, it reminded me of my first “Indian Christmas” in Varanasi/Benares in 2002.
December 25th was a very ordinary, misty North Indian day. Walking the streets, with a shawl wrapped tightly around me against the chill wintry air, it felt like any other winter’s day. No one else seemed to have noticed that it was one of the most special days of the year. No Christmas trees or special food. No parties or candlelit carol services. A very ordinary business day stripped of all the traditions I had known growing up in England. It felt very strange, this my first Christmas in India.
My sadness at what was missing however was quickly replaced by a realization that the slate had been washed clean and I could start to celebrate Jesus’ birth without all the trappings; that I could begin new traditions focused on the true meaning of the festival. I could start again celebrating the birth of my savior, the one who came to bring Moksha (salvation) to ALL peoples, in the simplest way. What would it look like for my husband, our adopted Indian family and I to celebrate Yeshu Jayanti, on the roof of our home overlooking the Ganges, devoid of western traditions but rich with its original purpose? That simple, stripped back to the basics Christmas still has very special memories in my heart.
From it grew new traditions. Local youth performing a nativity amongst the mango trees in our garden with a bright star beaming from the rooftop above. A huge crowd of neighbours gathered around a simple wooden “chaukee” stage as darkness descends. Our friends’ tiny baby playing the part of the infant savior. Friends and neighbours dropping by for “Christmas cake”. Simple Christmas family pujas. Hindu Yeshu Bhakta friends worshiping together using their own special Christmas bhajans. The King of Kings who chose to be born in a simple stable rather than a palace, being worshiped simply in a very beautiful South Asian way.
Almost 20 years later, things have changed a lot. Traditional Benares now buzzes with Smartphones and ATMs. Santa hats and fake Christmas trees hang from shop windows and pop up street stalls. Whatsapp messages send Christmas greetings in every South Asian language. And Christmas is celebrated by people from a wide variety of faiths and traditions – or at least the western trappings have been embraced.
Barradin – the big day! The longest night is over; dawn heralds the start of days getting longer and brighter. It is unlikely that Jesus was really born on December 25th, but for centuries people the world over has chosen to celebrate the birth of their saviour and lord on this auspicious and meaningful day of the year. Many traditions have grown up over the centuries and it is a wonderful opportunity to fill the cold and barren winter days with light, joy, peace and celebration. However you celebrated in your pared-down Christmas this year, I hope it brought you back to truly consider the “reason for the season”, as it did for me all those years ago in beautiful Benares. This Christmas, Zee TV launched a new series called “Yeshu”, which explores the life of Jesus in a contextualized South Asian way. If you can access it, I recommend it as a great way to explore the story of Yeshu Jayanti/Christmas afresh. It may not be 100% biblically accurate but it gives a great insight into the story behind this great festival that is celebrated all over the world.