By Chantelle Lusebrink
Wile we may not have the hope of anything close to a white Christmas or a Christmas tree, we do have sweeping vistas of the Indian Ocean’s warm waters lapping sandy shores and busy country roads endlessly dotted with rows of coconut groves and brightly colored houses in fuchsia and electric orange. All things considered, and after you’ve heavily sprayed yourself with DEET to ward off the local mosquito population, this isn’t a bad way to spend Christmas.
Hurtling down the dirt country roads by Moped, dodging cows, dogs and sari-clad women carrying bundles of wood for the evening cooking fires, the sun begins to set here on Christmas Eve in Auroville, India and while it may seem worlds from what we’re used to, Christmas is still found here.
Few Indians, though colonized by the British and the French —as in the case of Pondicherry and its surrounding areas —have converted to Christianity (roughly 3 percent to 6 percent of the country’s population identifies themselves as Christian or about 24 million people), according to information by the U.S. State Department. Instead, the majority prefer to keep their local heritage and religions alive through Hinduism, predominately. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Christmas is readily found in India, be it a curiosity, a symbol of the other or simply just a way to drive sales as tourist season picks up.
In India sale signs and gleeful Santa Clauses are still found waving in front stores downtown and local tradesmen are producing their wares in bulk to accommodate the tourists. While we may be limited in our decoration colors, predominately red, white and green, Christmas in India is as colorful as the silk saris worn by the women here. Even the ornamentation of Sacred Heart Church’s nativity and building in the city of Pondicherry are dripping in colors rarely seen outside the tropics.
But it goes further than just the decoration of Christmas and the child-sized Santa Claus outfits, displayed in every other window of side street shops. Education about their past, their present and their future is also important in the cities and among the villages that had been colonized and today, lay so near to the international township of Auroville. As an expression of human society and development Auroville attracts people from all walks of life, religions and cultures throughout the world, said Nick Klotz, an Australian living in India and a volunteer at the Mohanam Cultural Center in the village of Sanjeevi Nagar that hosted a morning Christmas event and play about Jesus.
“Here, the learning for children, is not just of one religion but to learn about many of them,” Klotz said about the morning’s festivities. “While there are no Christians, nor will there be Christians in this village we are still near to Auroville and there is a population that celebrates, just as there is a population that celebrates in Pondicherry because of its roots to French colonization.”
The children’s play focused on Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, so it was more about the Easter story of Jesus rather than his birth but it provides context for the children as to why this figure is so important to the others that live in the area. They also sang Christmas carols and decorated crafts.
“Indians are very absorbed in religion and they also really like a party, especially one with religious connotations,” he said. “So this is a fun event for them.”
Many of us share in this same type of education around the world, this cross cultural exchange of knowledge, spirit and culture that helps us better understand our place in the world and how others fit with us. It is a privilege to watch the celebration of something so foreign to this culture and watch how it fits into their perspective.
Watching the sun sink below the tree line of thick palms, the sky illuminates with lavender and bright orange. The smell of coconut, saffron, jasmine and curried spices fill the air, instead of the smells emanating from the family turkey, Christmas cookies and homemade pies.
While many of our families were waking and preparing for guests, we celebrated our Christmas Eve beside a lovely tree decorated by the residents here at the Tibetan Pavilion in Auroville, replete with shimmering lights, and of course, packages under the tree for our White Elephant gift exchange. For me, the sounds of Christmas in India will come back to Paris with me in the form of Baul ‘n’ Beyond a greatest hits compilation, which I’m sure will get plenty of use now and for many years to come.
From India, what we wish for our friends, family and patrons of this blog is a wonderful holiday filled with treasured memories for years to come. Merry Christmas!