On Christmas morning, my hostess packed our breakfast, and we hastened down the two flights of stairs to our waiting vehicle. Santhos, our driver, opened the back door of the Maruti for us, and we climbed in. I had arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) two days earlier for a three-week trip through India.
Today was to be special. Santhos was going to drive us to my friend's bungalow on Aksa Beach, where we would celebrate Christmas in this predominantly Hindu country. After leaving the main highway out of Mumbai, we passed through a rural community. Men and children moved about outside their shelters, and women squatted before outdoor cook stoves. Santhos skillfully navigated around the farm animals – chickens, pigs, goats, and the ubiquitous bovine, all freely roaming with no boundaries.
The entrance to the Aksa Beach community was through a large gate that opened into a colony of well-spaced bungalows shaded by tall palm trees. "Let's eat our holiday breakfast on the veranda," my hostess suggested. As we dined on toast, orange juice, and cornflakes with milk and yogurt set on the picnic table, we shared memories of past Christmases – mine in the cold climate of New England, hers in warm Mumbai.
The imagery of snow scenes, so often depicted on holiday greeting cards in the States, seemed oddly incongruous here in this tropical zone. Currier & Ives prints of couples bundled into sleighs, skimming over snow-covered fields, bore no resemblance to this verdant landscape. In the comfortable warmth of the day, my ingrained perceptions were difficult to shed.
After breakfast, as we walked along the seashore, my attention was drawn to the tiny shells scattered sparingly on the beach. Just as my hand was so full I could pick up no more, I spied a small terra-cotta pot caught between two rocks. "A gift for you," my hostess exclaimed. "It's a yogurt pot, and they're considered disposable."
To me, it was a treasure waiting to be discovered – my "Gift From the Sea," just as in the book. I funneled the shells into the narrow neck of the pot as we slowly retraced our steps back to the bungalow.
The next morning we attended a service at a Christian church in Mumbai. The postlude jolted me back to my New England roots. The sound of a familiar tune filled the auditorium with the melody of "White Christmas."
At that moment, our two cultures became as one. That traditional holiday song, played at a church service in India made me wonder if the organist knew someone was there who would appreciate its familiarity.
Its closing phrase, "And may all your Christmases be white," blended with the cheery holiday greetings extended to one another by the parishioners as we left the church.
Was I, a visitor from New England, the only one in the congregation who had a point of reference for a white Christmas, I wondered.
Recalling our previous day's sharing of Christmas memories at Aksa Beach, it suddenly occurred to me that this climate was much like the one that Jesus was born into and knew as he traversed the hills and valleys of the Holy Land. I realized how far I and others from snowy areas have strayed in our Christmas associations.
The love shown to me, a Westerner far from home at Christmastime, lifted a popular holiday song to a new level and my spirits with it. As for the true essence of Christmas, it filled the church with kindness and kinship. The story of the Nativity read from the Scriptures, the joyous expectancy of those attending, and the love that drew us together in worship were palpable.
Several days later, I continued my journey through the ever-changing landscape. As I traveled from Mumbai south to Hyderabad and Chennai and then north to Agra, New Delhi, and Chandigarh, I was embraced by the new friends I met in each city. It was a daily reminder that I was indeed in the presence of individuals whose caring knew no boundaries of geography or culture. The spirit of my Christmas at Aksa Beach and the church service the next day continued to find expression wherever I traveled during my three-week sojourn.