– by Madhusree Chatterjee –
New Delhi: Christmas has over the years become an annual ritual celebrated in India with a "desi" flavour in millions of Christian homes — and even at public places.
Family feasts, traditions, private parties with bonfires and theme dinners at hotels keep the spirit of Indian Christmas alive across the country.
In an old family home in Howrah in West Bengal, barely 10 km from the metropolis of Kolkata, Christmas for the last seven decades is marked by an Indo-British colonial dinner.
"The feast is traditional — but spiced to suit an essentially West Bengal palette," says Nilika Chatterjee, a descendant of the family which had made its sprawling home along the bank of the river Ganges in the 17th century.
"The main course of roast chicken, turkey or quail is accompanied by saffron rice flavoured with cardamom, nutmeg, clove, almond, cashews, a lentil broth, vegetables baked with cheese, kofta curry and boiled eggs garnished with celery, basil, mint and coriander. A vegetable or chicken clear soup is the appetiser with platters of chicken dumplings that do the rounds before dinner," Chatterjee told IANS.
The fruit wine (with alcohol) is locally procured from a community of Anglo-Indian winemakers in a railway settlement near the Howrah station, she said. The family story dates back to the 1930s when the youngest scion of the clan won his Irish bride in a duel with an Irishman outside a posh Calcutta club on New Year's Eve.
He whisked his European bride to his conservative country home at dawn, changing the course of family history, 46-year-old Chatterjee recalled.
"Since then, Christmas has been a part of the family. We pray at home on Christmas eve," she said.
Several mixed family homes in Kolkata have their own Christmas tradition.
In the Bow Bazar area of Kolkata, the residents of the heritage Bow Barracks (apartment complex) and its adjoining areas in Kolkata, Christmas is celebrated "with home-made wine, fruit cakes, rice, vindaloo and dimsums" in the homes of the Anglo-Indians, Chinese and Goan Christians who dominate the neighbourhood.
In the south Delhi neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park, Christmas is an annual ritual in Shantanu Mukherjee's home that he has made for the last 12 years after returning from Germany. Mukherjee's German wife longs for home.
"It is more to make her feel better at Christmas, when she is homesick," Mukherjee says of his 69-year-old wife. Sometimes, their sons drop in from the US.
"Christmas eve begins with the recital of Grace at the makeshift altar at home followed by a dinner of soup, boiled and sauteed vegetables, turkey, curried lamb, spicy rice and pudding," Mukherjee told IANS.
"I have many expat and NRI friends in the capital who are married to Westerners. We celebrate together…Christmas is a quiet festival and suits us well," he said.
Muffins, cakes and pork dishes are common in most Christian households in the capital.
Christmas means an open house at retired Delhi-based teacher Lata Srinivasan's home every year.
"We bake the Christmas cake at least 15 days in advance — it weighs nearly 16 kg. We take our ingredients — flour, dry fruits, sugar and a special Indian masala mix — to a professional baker, who bakes it. The dry fruits — cashews, walnuts, almonds, orange and ginger peel — are soaked in rum for a month," Srinivasan, a Malayalee Christian from Kerala, told IANS.
The meat section is an extravagant spread of "chicken and pork vindaloo, fish fry, fish cutlets, salted beef and mutton curry."
"The vegetarian platter comprises vegetable cutlets, paneer (cottage cheese), rice, chapati, puree papad, pickles and salad," Srinivasan said.
The family prays at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in central Delhi.
The "Oh! Calcutta" eatery at south Delhi's Nehru Place plans its fusion Christmas menu in advance.
"We try to keep the spirit of the festival and the country in which it is celebrated intact," a spokesperson for the eatery told IANS.
This year, the eatery has drawn up a special Dec 25 buffet made up of "cream of coriander soup, chicken croquettes, bhetki fish fry, prawn and vegetable salad, pabda begun jhol (a Bengali fish delicacy), mutton vindaloo, roast turkey with mushroom sauce and baked prawns with vegetables".
At the Spice Water Trail, an eatery in the M Block Market in Greater Kailash, Christmas this year is being celebrated in the South Indian style.
"The South Indian waiters at the eatery have dressed up as Santa Claus with red fur-trimmed vests and South Indian 'dhotis' to attend to the guests," manager Gaurav Sachdeva said.
"The menu is a mix of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry (a former French colony) and Kerala — three states which have a large Christian population," Sachdeva said.
The highlights are pork and potato vindaloo, which, according to Sachdeva, was originally cooked by Christians in Kerala "before the "Goans took it", stuffed duck and stir-fried tenderloin.
"The main desert attraction is sago (sponge or sabu daana) pudding," Sachdeva said.
According to French pastry chef Frank Turmine of the Jaypee Greens Golf and Spa Resport, "it is easy to make sponge cakes with cream at home in India".
"The cakes can be flavoured with Indian spices like cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Besides, chocolates and dry fruits soaked in syrup can be good Christmas desserts, which are easy to make," Turmine told IANS.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com)