Christmas, the birth anniversary of Jesus Christ, is celebrated across India with great fervor.
People decorate their houses, erect Christmas trees, make cribs with figures of baby Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph, the three kings who come to visit the baby and shepherd boys and their herds grazing around depicting the scenes of Jesus's Birth in the Bible. They decorate the Christmas tree, hang stars, gifts and illuminate them.
On the Christmas day, people enjoy a sumptuous Christmas lunch. Christmas cakes and wine are served to visitors and exchanged as gifts among friends and relatives.Christmas celebrations vary in different parts of India. In some parts, small clay oil-burning lamps, mango leaves etc are used as Christmas decorations and mango and banana trees are decorated. All the major Indian cities wear a festive look. Shops and bazaars are decorated for the occasion and offer attractive bargains.
Carol singing, get-togethers and the exchanging of gifts enhance the Christmas spirit. Christmas parties launch off celebrations for the New year, thus retaining the festive mood for at least a week.
Christians all over the world celebrate the birth or Nativity of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, on 25th of December every year. This is the most important and the gayest festival of the Christians. Other communities in India also look upon it as a festival of goodwill and greetings. During the British period it was celebrated on an All-India basis and the ten days from the Christmas Eve i.e the evening of 24th December till after the New year were declared as public holidays. Children and youngsters looked forward to Christmas holidays when they enjoyed themselves to their heart's content. It was also during the British period that the Christian missions penetrated to the interior of India even to the tribal regions, resulting in the number of people who were converted to Christian faith. This resulted in the Christians becoming the third most important community in India.
After India achieved independence from the sovereignty of the British, this festival lost much of its official importance; yet the tradition of celebrating it that was left behind by the British continues even to this day specially in metropolitan cities of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras where Christians as well as non-Christians celebrate it on quite a grand scale.
Shops and homes take on a festive air. Streets and markets go gay with festival wares. Dances, songs, Christmas trees & Santa Claus moving through the streets with his glittering colorful robes, glowing long white beard and shaking hand with children in the streets form the main attraction of this festival. Families get together around sparkling Christmas trees from whose branches hang numerous lovely gifts. When the youngsters receive the gifts and open them, they dance with joy. Both men and women, young and old take pains in designing the cribs, sheep and shepherds, old Joseph, young Virgin Mary, Child Jesus nestling in his cradle of hay, angels floating in the star-studded sky and the Three Wise Men on the fringe of horizon.
The day is spent in meeting friends and relatives. Delicious dishes of turkey, wine and Christmas cakes are eaten and served to visitors. Greeting cards to wish joy and peace are exchanged. The night is enlivened with dances, carols and mid-night masses in all the churches. Youngsters dance hilariously on the streets singing carols to the accompaniment of musical instruments. The most popular carol is :- "Silent night, holy night All is calm, all is bright Round yon Virgin Mother and Child Holy infant so tender and mild Sleep in heavenly peace".
Even upcoming artists get a chance to perform along with well-established artists. Thus the Christmas season is rung in with a feeling of happiness and goodwill amidst the clouds of discontent.
The early Christians who were the hunted feet in the Roman Empire could not celebrate the birth of Jesus and under compulsion had to practice their religion in secret because Christianity in Rome had grown up in blood and tears. To publicly profess their religion meant grave risks to life and many a times resulted in death punishments. As such events connected with the life of Christ were commemorated by fasts, prayers and rites but not by public celebrations.
But after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to the Christian religion in 4th century A.D. that creed, professed by a few secret groups of enthusiastic believers was transformed into the religion of vast masses of humanity in Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. With this creed thus firmly established, the need for a popular festival to annually celebrate the birth of Christ was felt. But different groups had been celebrating Jesus's birth on different dates like 6th January, 19th April, 20th May, 17th November, 25th December. By the 5th century A.D. 25th December got accepted as the most suitable date in the Western World and gradually the Eastern Churches fell in line with the west and did away with non-Christian religious rites and old traditions and introduced Christian rites and legends.
In India all the Christians do not recognise this date. The Syrian Christians who belong to Kerala do not celebrate on 25th December. Those who belong to Kerala celebrated it on 7th January with procession of elephants and musicians. Those procession were almost like Hindu Temple festivals. It was believed that those processions spiritually elevated the places through which they passed and also prevented epidemics. The music, fireworks and illuminations turned cold, dark winter nights into bright, dazzling days. Gaily decorated crosses of gold or silver were the main sacred symbols that were taken out in processions but with arrival of the Portuguese on the scene, images of saints were added to the procession. Those age-old pageants are now being replaced in Syrian churches by community prayers and services, aiming at spiritual uplift of the congregation. Yet most of the Syrian Catholic Churches even to-day take out small processions.
The Portuguese who established their supremacy in the coastal regions of India during 16th century A.D. were ardent supporters of Christianity. So the Christian religion spread widely in their dominion. Christians observe certain days like the Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter to commemorate certain events in the last 8 days of Christ's life- Crucifixion and his Resurrection. From Goa, the capital of the Eastern Empire of the Portuguese, missions were sent to several places in the country even to the Mogul court, but those missions did not achieve any spectacular success. It was only during the British period that the Christian religion spread all over the country.
The festival of Christmas is celebrated for ten continuous days. The end of these Christian festivities is the New year day. The British introduced the Gregarian Calendar and throughout their rule it was the only calendar in use for official purposes. Even after they left and India became independent that calendar is being followed in India for official purposes. The first day of January is the New year day of the Gregarian Calendar.