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In India, All Religions Join In 'The Big Day'

Dec 25, 2012
Originally published on December 25, 2012 5:43 pm

India, the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, marks the birth of Jesus with a national holiday.

Indians call Christmas bara din, or the Big Day.

Chef Bhakshish Dean, a Punjabi Christian, traces the roots of Christianity in India through food.

Standing in the New Delhi kitchen of one of several restaurants he overseas, pots bubbling with scrumptious holiday specials, Dean says Syrian Christians were the first to arrive in India, in the first century. The ancient sect devoted to St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have first landed on the Indian coast in what is today the state of Kerala. He says they came with the fabled spice trade, intermarried and introduced their cuisine.

Dean's Syrian stews, which top his Christmas menu, are infused with the scents of South Indian cloves, cardamom and star anise — a star-shaped spice with a hint of licorice that is popular in cooking throughout South Asia.

Just 2 percent of the Indian population is Christian, but writer Naresh Fernandes says, "That's 2 percent of the population of one billion. So that is quite a lot of people for whom December 25th is very important."

Fernandes says in his Roman Catholic neighborhood in Mumbai, the Portuguese converted the locals and Christmas tends to be "big opulent meals" that start in the afternoon and go late into the night. "Things like vindaloo, which is a preparation made of pork," he says, adding, "no roast turkeys, but lots of things involving fat and pig-lings."

The British Raj also may have fixed Christmas in the Indian imagination as quintessentially English: the requisite roasted turkey and tipple of mulled wine. They'll grace many Yuletide tables of Delhi's sizable expatriate community.

Delhi-based food writer Pamela Timms says she's managed to Indian-nize her traditional recipe for mince pies, which includes "glacee cherries."

"I found out this year they are not actually cherries in India," she says. "They are made from a local berry called karonda, which is pink and white in its natural state but once you add sugar to it and boil it away, it looks like a glacee cherry."

As a long-time resident of India, Timms says Christmas seems to slot right into the pantheon of festivals in the Indian calendar. "It's a time of year that comes right after lots of other Indian festivals, so the country is already in festival mode," she says.

Carolers from St. Columba's School in the capital stage their annual Christmas program that expresses the multifaith nature of India. This alma mater of health guru Deepak Chopra was founded by the Christian Brothers of Ireland, and while it is a Catholic school, the student body is also Sikh and Hindu.

Arsh Wahi, a Hindu student at St. Columba's, says his family puts up a Christmas tree every year and stocks up on plum pudding and other Christmas goodies from the fabled Dehli bakery called Wenger's.

With its 70 varieties of cakes in the shape of stars, yule logs and Santas, this 86-year-old establishment is jammed this time of year with holiday-makers who eat and sing their way through the season.

Choirs echo in the churches across the city, and choral groups perform Christmas concerts.

Neeraj Devraj, a soloist with The Capital City Minstrels, says he's not Christian or religious, but celebrates Christmas with the same fervor he celebrates the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali, and the Muslim feast of Eid.

"For me personally, Christmas is about getting together with the people you are fond of, people you love," he says. "It's great fun, it's the joy of giving. It's very Indian ... to just celebrate the aspect of being alive and being around people who matter."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas today. In India, the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, they're also marking the birth of Jesus with a national holiday. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that in the land of great religions, Christians and non-Christians join in the festivities of the season with song and special meals.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Indians capture Christmas in a phrase.

BHAKSHISH DEAN: We call it bara din. Bara din, in our language, means the big day.

MCCARTHY: Chef Bhakshish Dean is a Punjabi Christian and traces the roots of Christianity in India thru food. He says Syrian Christians, disciples of Thomas the Apostle, are believed to have arrived on the Indian coast in the first century. They came with the fabled spice trade, intermarried, and introduced their cuisine. Chef Dean's Syrian stews, which top his Christmas menu, are infused with the scents of South Indian cloves, cardamom and star anise

DEAN: Star S-T-A-R A-N-I-S-E, star anise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's beautiful.

DEAN: So, we have now coconut milk going into the stew.

MCCARTHY: Just 2 percent of the Indian population is Christian, but says writer Naresh Fernandes...

NARESH FERNANDES: That is 2 percent of a billion people. So, that is quite a lot of people for whom December the 25th is very important.

MCCARTHY: He says in his Roman Catholic neighborhood in Mumbai the Portuguese converted the locals and Christmas tends to be big opulent meals.

FERNANDES: Things like vindaloo, which is a preparation made out of pork. No roast turkeys but lots of things involving fat and piglings.

MCCARTHY: The British Raj may also have fixed Christmas in the Indian imagination as quintessentially English: the requisite roasted turkey and tipple of mulled wine. Delhi-based food writer Pamela Timms says she's Indian-nized her traditional recipe for minced pies adding local glacee cherries.

PAMELA TIMMS: I found out this year they are not actually cherries in India. They're made from a little local berry called the karonda, which is kind of pink and white in natural state but once you add sugar to it and boil it away, it looks like a glacee cherry.

CHILDREN: (Singing) Let every heart, prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing...

MCCARTHY: Carolers from St. Columba's School capture the Christmas mood. This alma mater of health guru Deepak Chopra was founded by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. It may be Catholic but the students are also Sikh and Hindu, all celebrating Christmas, all absorbing each other's customs. Arsh Wahi, a Hindu student says his family puts up a tree every year. I spotted him stocking up on Christmas goodies with this father, Vineh Wahi at a fabled Dehli Bakery called Wenger's. Do you get mince pies? Do you buy plum puddings? Do you do anything like that?

ARSH WAHI: Yeah, yeah. We do buy puddings, tarts and all. We really enjoy these days.

MCCARTHY: With its 70 varieties of cakes in the shape of stars, yule-logs and Santas, this 86-year-old establishment is the essence of Christmas, where in this season across Delhi choirs practice.

THE CITY MINSTRELS: (Singing) Alleluia, praise the Lord.

MCCARTHY: And perform, as the choral group The City Minstrels does, every year.

MINSTRELS: (Singing) Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.

MCCARTHY: Soloist Neeraj Devraj says he's not Christian or religious but celebrates Christmas with the same fervor he celebrates the Hindu festival of lights, Dewali, and the Muslim Feast of Eid.

NEERAJ DEVRAJ: For me personally, Christmas is about getting together with the people you are fond of. It's great fun. That's just the joy of giving. It's the spirit of being together with the ones you love. It's very Indian, it's very especially very Punjabi, to just celebrate the aspect of being alive and being around people who matter.

MINSTRELS: (Singing) Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.