Christmas in India
A Brief History
Indian Christians trace their Christian roots back to A.D. 52, when the Apostle Thomas visited and baptized Indian nobility. He founded the church that subsequently became the Indian Orthodox Church (and its various descendants).
Catholicism was introduced to India during the 16th century by Portuguese, Irish and Italian Jesuits. They built Christian schools, hospitals and child care centers. Later Protestantism was introduced by missionaries from Britain, Scotland, Germany and the US. These missionaries introduced English language education and translated Bibles into several indigenous languages.
Today, modern Syriac Christians of Kerala (the majority Christian population there) also called St. Thomas Christians, observe Eastern Orthodox rituals and traditions. When the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerala in 1497, he was quite shocked to discover Christians living there.
India is a secular nation with many varied religions and cultures represented there. Christians are a minority and form nearly 2.3% of the population. With a population of over 1 billion, that's about 25 million Christians celebrating Christmas in India! Christmas is celebrated not only by Christians but by people of other religions as well. The tradition of Christmas observance was introduced in India with European colonization. Though the country gained its independence in 1947, many European customs and festivals remained.
Christmas is the biggest and most-loved festival of Indian Christians. The festival is also enthusiastically celebrated by people of other religions residing here. Like in many other countries, Christmas is observed in India on the 25th of December. Businesses are decked out for the occasion with every gift shop packed with Christmas trees, presents, ornaments and other items of decoration.
Christmas in Chennai
In homes, real and artificial Christmas trees are decorated with cotton snow flakes, bells, colored balls, candy canes and other colored decorations in varying shapes. Every Christian home creates a nativity scene, often displaying a manger in the front window. Giant star-shaped paper lanterns are hung between the houses. Sweets are prepared in every home to offer to visitors.
Christmas Tree in a Home in Kerala
In Southern states, Christians often light small clay oil lamps and place these on the flat roofs of their homes to show that Jesus is the light of the world. In the Northwestern states of India, Christians of the Bhil people will participate in caroling processions during the whole Christmas week.
Clay Oil Lamps
For Indian Christians, especially Catholics, the Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is a very important service and holds great religious significance. Churches are decorated with poinsettia flowers and candles. After mass, everyone looks forward to a feast of various delicacies, mostly consisting of curries.
Nativity plays are staged in many schools (mainly the Christian ones) and churches on Christmas morning. The performances by young children depict the birth, life and actions of Jesus Christ and usually end with the singing of hymns and carols and the visit of a person dressed as Santa to distribute candies/toffees to the children. Caroling processions on streets and thoroughfares can also be seen. A sizable population of the Christian community reside in Mumbai in the Indian state of Maharashtra and are mainly Roman Catholics.
People exchange presents and wish one another "Merry Christmas." India being a multicultural nation, many different languages are spoken. In Hindi and Urdu, Happy/Merry Christmas is 'Bade Din ki Mubarak'; in Sanskrit it is 'Krismasasya shubhkaamnaa'; in Bengali 'Barodiner shubhechha janai'; and in Tamil it's 'Christhu Jayanthi Nalvaalthukal'.
In India, Father Christmas or Santa Claus gives presents to children from a horse and cart. As in the U.S., he is believed to deliver presents at the house of every kid who behaves well during the year. Santa Claus is known as 'Christmas Baba' in Hindi and 'Christmas Thaathaa' in Tamil.
India is one of the most diverse nations in the world. There are more than 2500 people groups speaking more than 450 languages. Despite recent tremendous economic growth, approximately 191 million people--15% of the population--are malnourished. Roughly 50,000 children in India are orphans, and about 22% of the population lives in poverty.
Overpopulation also makes pollution and sanitation unmanageable. These contribute to deadly diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. India, along with China has the highest level of water pollution in the world. Almost 600 people per day die of water pollution related illness each day. Pray for justice and hope in a nation plagued by oppression, poverty, and disease.
The caste system-- a rigid cultural institution that assigned people to a social stratum based on birth--led to many terrible human rights abuses. Though officially abolished, it continues to hold great influence over the culture and remains a major barrier to social mobility. Even today, it is difficult for people of lower castes to find jobs, no matter what their education or background. Pray for the cultural barriers of the caste system and Hinduism to be overcome by the Gospel.
Anti-conversion laws make it difficult to share the Gospel. Those who choose to follow Jesus are often threatened with losing their status, jobs, homes, and even lives. Many Christian organizations which provided education and health services, have been forced out, leaving many bereft of physical and spiritual aid. However, despite the intense persecution, Christianity is the fastest growing religion in India.
Pray for the Good News of Jesus Christ to reach every village and town.