Christmas – The Kolkata Way


The onset of the second week of December makes one reflect and ponder about Christmas festivities. Having spent a few Christmases in cooler climes of Western Europe one feels nostalgic about the ‘snowy’ Christmas termed as the ‘white’ Christmas though more often it was the chilly cold one.

The entire ambiance gets imbued with a festive spirit with the streets lit up with brightly coloured sparkling lights, mistletoe wrappers hanging from windows, Christmas trees appearing in offices and homes with all the dazzling coloured balls and streamers, aroma of the mulled wine and roasting chestnuts in the busy Christmas markets diffusing through the air, with small trolleys and jukeboxes cranking out music where quaint little shops sell streamers, decorative items, plum cakes, rich sugar-laden sweets and confectionaries.

In simple words the atmosphere amidst the ‘nippy’ cold air is just magical and enchanting!! But there was always an annoying and disconcerting aspect associated with this period; the perennial question of whether Christmas is my festival, an Indian festival or worse, if I would feel delighted as an Indian to receive the traditional greeting ‘Merry Christmas’.

The politically-correct liberal brigade would conjure a rather bland, lacklustre greeting of ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings’.  In those moments I felt like wailing, ‘You have no idea of how we celebrate Christmas in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) and never you will be able to imagine the wonderful Christmas spirit of my town in which I have immersed for most of my life.’ There are two exasperating questions which confronted me while living abroad about the mystery of my ability to speak English: that blunt ‘where did you learn your English’ question and celebration of Christmas as an Indian festival, and both would annoy any sensible Kolkatan beyond all limits.

Recently attending a book launch on Christmas stories by Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta, at a bookstore on Park Street, I thought this was the blissful moment; finally the wide world will come to learn and appreciate the unique Christmas magic of Kolkata, and I wish the book good luck!!  The significance of Park Street, heart of downtown Kolkata, as a location for the book launch was not missed since this is the nerve-centre of Christmas celebrations of Kolkata. 

The delightful Christmas story of Kolkata comes alive on Park Street; with the street lit by pulsating lights with ingenious animations like driving carts, the famous Swiss confectionary Flury’s  readied with delectable plum-cakes, pastries, chocolates and cakes, with large crowds streaming in, restaurants and bars all adorning special decorations like Christmas trees and santas, shops selling discounted items, and loads of Kolkatans thronging Park Street to soak in the festive spirit of warmth and gaiety of Kolkata Christmas.

Apart from this stretch of boulevard, my memories drifted to the eclectic charming Christmas market in New Market where there were loads of stalls peddling crackers, streamers, glitter, toys, decorative items and the ubiquitous Christmas trees, an absolute feast for young and old alike.  Besides one could observe people rushing for their suits and clothing, availing of the last-minute discounts in the clothing stores. The entire downtown area was deluged with the festive wave of the Christmas spirit of joy and celebration, with establishments like confectionaries, bakeries, restaurants, bars and shops partaking in them with decorations of lights and colourful mistletoes beckoning customers.

There is an interesting anecdote which was related by the author, where during one of her visits to Kolkata she posed a question to a group of Kolkatans queuing outside Flury’s for their cakes, ‘Why do you celebrate Christmas?’ and they retorted ‘Why not?’.  As a matter of fact there is a Bengali expression for Christmas, ‘Burra Din’ translated as ‘Big Day’, which indicates the extent to which Christmas is an integral part of the fabric of Kolkata life and its numerous festivals. 

I recollect watching the poignant movie titled Bow Barracks Forever, which depicted the celebration of Christmas in Kolkata, including a delightful song ‘Teri Meri Merry Christmas’ (translated as ‘yours and mine Merry Christmas’), sung by the famous Usha Uthup, with a vibrant dance performance by Victor Banerjee. The gyrations of Victor Banerjee as part of the band which was belting out the number was so natural and outstanding that it ceased to be an ‘acted role’ but a visceral plunge into the spirit of joy and celebration. I am very glad that these two remarkable works of art, one the book and the other the film, immortalises the Christmas spirit of Kolkata. 

What is of utmost significance is that the Christmas spirit of Kolkata transcends all barriers of faith, community, religion, caste, creed or class and the entire citizenry soak in the joy and gaiety, extending their warmest wishes to all.  Here we find Indian pluralism and celebration of diversity at its apogee and the Western European brand of multi-culturalism has scant to offer us in lesson.

Here I wish to extend to all my global friends a heart-felt greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ and to add a Bengali touch, ‘Shubho Burradin’!!  As for the angst-ridden liberal brigade, let their ‘politically correct’ greetings be consigned to the waste-bin this year, and let us celebrate Christmas the ‘Kolkata’ way where we can wish each other, irrespective of our social, cultural or economic status, a very Merry Christmas without any hesitation or recalcitrance.

Once again… A very Merry Christmas to you all.