By Swapan Dasgupta
Having spent the first 16 years of my life in Calcutta—as it was then called—Christmas has always been burra din to me. It was (and probably still is) the best time for visiting the city that has been marginalised by history. It’s the time when, traditionally, the old ‘white town’ around Park Street assumes a joyous character, when the clubs resurrect their long-forgotten specialities such as suckling pig and when gentlemen dress their part.
For the small Christian community in the city, there is a special religious character to Christmas. Some of us have even witnessed this in the midnight mass at the grand St Paul’s Cathedral—an imposing monument to the time when our rulers nominally paid allegiance to the Church of England. In my childhood, the Christian service was conducted in English, and I have extremely happy memories singing robust Anglican hymns at the morning assembly in school. I still chuckle recalling the Friday sermon of the erudite Reverend Subir Biswas, then Bishop of St Paul’s, not least because of his measured, halting delivery and his unending use of the line “when I was in Durgapore”—he always pronounced it as Durgapore, never Durgapur.
In my personal experience, Christianity wasn’t much of an evangelical religion. Yes, there were odd occasions when some visiting padre—they mostly happened to be American for some strange reason—would try to impress us with sermons explaining why Jesus Christ offered the only salvation. But these were stray distractions. In the main, La Martiniere, despite being nominally Christian, was really not very religious. The morning assembly had a Christian dimension and the Lord’s Prayer was dutifully recited but the ethos was unmistakably non-religious and aimed at inculcating a collegiate spirit. It didn’t really matter—unless there was a pronunciation mishap—what the lesson of the day was about. The more important announcements were yesterday’s cricket match or the forthcoming ‘social’ with the girl’s school across the road.
For many years after leaving school, I could never fathom the place of Christianity in my school education. Yes, I knew Book of Common Prayer, had my selection of favourite English hymns and was broadly familiar with the King James version of the Bible, but these seemed to me to be facets of English culture which, while peppered with religion, was also both secular and national. Decades later, I read a book on Englishness by the journalist Jeremy Paxman. He too appreciated the casual and laid back attitude of the Church of England—and described it as the “God is a good chap” approach. It encapsulated my encounters with Christianity in Calcutta and subsequently at St Stephen’s College, Delhi (another institution established by the Church of England) and colleges in London and Oxford.
I am told and that this unobtrusive approach has been long discarded, in India at least, and replaced by a more in-your-face Christianity—the hallmark of the evangelical churches in the American Bible belt. By this logic, Christmas is automatically transformed into a festival for believing Christians only, with no role for those who observe December 25 as a cultural festival, celebrating a facet of Western life.
Not that this truncation of Christmas into an occasion for true believers alone is something that I have observed in the United Kingdom—the place from which burra din travelled to India.
This year, I spent much of October and November in London that gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with old friends. Invariably our conversations veered to Christmas and the traditional family lunch that accompanied it. One college friend, a Barrister, explained at length a recipe for Christmas pudding she had been bequeathed by an eccentric great uncle that involved using suet—which she collected from her local butcher—but no flour. Another friend, now a professor at my alma mater, narrated the elaborate steps she had taken to ensure that the turkey would be delivered to a neighbour, awaiting her return to London on December 23 from a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand. She had already prepared many Christmas puddings for her own use and for distribution to her friends. I look forward to having it on Christmas Eve, along with the mince pies I picked up at the duty-free shop in Heathrow.
Neither of my friends is a church-going Christian. One is married to a cartoonist who is a leading light of a movement for a secular Britain. The other, also nominally a Church of England Anglican, is married to a non-practicing Roman Catholic. For them, as I observed, Christmas is both a public occasion—witness the endless rounds of office parties and pre-Christmas gatherings where vast quantities of alcohol is consumed—and a family gathering where presents are exchanged and where it is customary for the inebriated to listen to the Queen’s speech in the late afternoon. It so reminded me of the Bijoya celebrations on the last day of Durga Puja that is so important to Bengalis. And it reminded me of the family reunions that mark the week around Diwali.
Over the years, particularly with the explosion of consumerism around Durga Puja, Diwali and Christmas, the religious underpinnings of the festivals has been sharply eroded. In Bengal I have also noticed how the ‘Durgotsav’ has been secularised by called it ‘Sharadutsov’ (autumn festival).
I am sure that there are similar attempts in the UK too. The number of nativity tableaux has shrunk and the odd Christmas card now says ‘Season’s Greetings’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas.’ It has been suggested that this shift is propelled by multicultural impulses—why assume everyone is a Christian in UK? The point is well taken but the underlying assumption is flawed. Why should we assume that my festival is a closed shop for believers alone? In the case of Christmas and, for that matter, Diwali or the four days of Durga Puja, the celebration is both of a faith and a culture.
In most societies, religion and culture are intertwined. By confining it to narrow, exclusive compartments, we lose out on the richness of human experience.
Asian Age, December 25, 2015