Having celebrated Christmas in several countries around the globe, I decided to experience the joyous end of year festival in India in the state of Goa. The celebration is vibrant in India (though not as exciting as, say, in Guyana or Europe or North America) where there are large concentrations of Christians as in Goa and Kerala and other states. Although Christians make up only a small percentage of the country’s population, Christmas is a holiday in India, making India one of the few countries in the world where a religious minority is recognized with national public holidays; other minorities like Sikhs, Jains and Muslims also have national religious holidays.
Goa is a primary destination for tourists. It is very busy during this time of the year. The wealthy class from various parts of India come to Goa for a vacation during the holiday season and the summer holidays (May and June). The state is not as crowded as others; there is much reduced vehicular traffic and pollution. It is also less urbanized. European travellers love Goa which for them is a hippie town. People come to Goa for fun and relaxation. It has the most beautiful beaches in India but in the monsoon period (July through September), it is avoided because the rivers dump their dirty water onto the ocean’s beaches. There is a lot of greenery everywhere, from the airport to the far corners of the state. It reminds me of Bora Bora, Tahiti and the Polynesian island chain with their undisturbed natural beauty. The beaches are very tropical and white though not as beautiful as, say, in Antigua or Jamaica; the white powdery sand is no comparison like that found in Guyana.
Goa was colonized by the Portuguese who have left a lot of their influence in the small state. It is Christian dominated with historical Catholic churches and a Christian tradition. The churches have names similar to those in Italy and Portugal and are similarly shaped, most of them built by the colonial state, contrasting with Hindu and Muslim religious places of worship built by private funding.
Christmas in Goa is one of the most important festivals, and is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm similar to what obtains in Guyana and the Caribbean. There is praying, nativity scenes, gifting, and merrymaking. As in the West, Christmas in Goa is celebrated on 25th December. (In the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Greece, etc, among Orthodox Christians, Christmas is on January 6 or 7.) The Goa Christmas festival is marked with a lot of revelry not dissimilar from that in the Caribbean.
People are very spiritual for the festival. Goa Christmas celebrations began with midnight mass on the eve of the holiday accompanied with the singing of Christmas carols, which is followed by offering prayers in the church, and exchanging gifts at home on the day itself. There is also a special lunch and dinner after the Christmas Day service at the church. The countless churches are beautifully decorated with lights and shining stars. The larger churches host a midnight mass outside and special meals for churchgoers as well as the less fortunate, a practice not found in Guyana or among the diaspora in North America or even in the West. As in Guyana, there are a lot of firecrackers that light up the night sky disturbing the peace. The market places and building in the urban areas are also attractively decorated with tinsel, bunting, lights and trimmings.
In Goa, only Christians decorate for Christmas, unlike say in Guyana, Trinidad, the US and Canada, where (Caribbean) Hindus and Muslims also decorate their homes and businesses for the season. The decorations in Goa are not as extravagant and spectacular as amongst Guyanese in the diaspora or in Guyana. On the trees are hung candies, sparkling stars, cotton flakes, cakes, socks, and a number of other decorative items. Gifts are also placed under the trees. There is a brightly lit white star in front of the homes of Christians. Some families have trees outside and/or inside their homes. The church compounds have nativity scenes put up on the day before Christmas. There is evidence of Hindu rituals in the Christian practices: the cross is garlanded with malas, and there are various offerings of food, fruits, and other rituals found in Hindu practice. During the festival, Christians dress themselves in the finest of their (Western) clothes. One can distinguish a Christian female through her mode of dress, unlike Hindus or Muslims who wear traditional garb like saris or shalwars.
Frolicking parties form an inevitable part of the Christmas season in Goa. On the beaches, there are bonfires and evening parties with dancing and boozing. There are also various water sports, swimming, snorkelling, and building sand castles.
Red poinsettias decorate the front of homes and hotels.
Goan cuisine is a delight for food lovers. As in many parts of Guyana on the Atlantic coast, seafood in Goa is a staple. People are not into much meat which is so much more expensive than fish; much of the food is cooked in coconut milk. And as in Guyana, alou is added to many of the curried dishes. A visit to Goa is incomplete without the scintillating buffet of seafood offered in five star hotels or restaurants that go for about than US$25, and would easily cost four times that much in North America, the Caribbean or Mexico.
Roti is different from the one in Guyana; there is no dhal puri but there is alou paratha and plain naan or chapatti, which we get in NY in the Indian shops or restaurants. There is also an assortment of scrumptious desserts that are made just for Christmas, including fruit cakes similar to those made by Guyanese though the taste is quite different from ours. The open markets have a countless number of stalls selling homemade chocolates and cakes. There is also an abundance of fruits, both tropical (mangoes, bananas, melons, citrus, etc) and temperate (apples, plums, apricots, strawberries), all grown in India. Coconuts are found everywhere with its water a favourite among locals as well as visitors from abroad. Coconuts are sold dirt cheap. There are literally millions of coconut trees in Goa reminiscent of what Guyana was like during the 1970s.
People belonging to various religious communities participate in the festival with immense enthusiasm. The beaches form the centre of the festivities among non-Christians. Loud music (carols, Bollywood, Western) and dance coupled with sumptuous dishes mark the festivities on the beaches. The makeshift restaurants with decorated Christmas trees, are quite busy during this period of the year. Hindus and Muslims shop, prepare special meals, and go kite-flying. During the season, youngsters are seen flying kites. However, unlike, say, in the West Indies where one can visit a home and be offered drinks and a hearty meal, Christians don’t invite non-Christians into their homes; it is a kind of intra-religious celebration.