After nearly four years living in India, I’m still amazed at what a huge celebration Christmas has become. From the gigantic reindeer that straddles the newly-constructed megamall near my house and hundreds of kids bargaining off light-up Santa hats on the street, to the roadside shops selling all things Christmas, signs of the holiday are everywhere. Though this ancient country of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, and many other religions has a long history of celebrating each other’s festivals, the blitz of Christmas is still a relatively new phenomenon.
“When I was a kid we used to sell real pine trees from the Himalayas and fruit cakes,” says Shareel Goyal, the third-generation owner of Kriti Creations, a magnificent gift shop that brims with human-sized Santa Claus statues and reindeer neck ties in Khan Market, a bustling shopping area. “But after India opened up to foreign imports in the early 1990s, Christmas started booming. We now have everything from custom Christmas trees and nativity straw to every kind of ornament you can imagine.”
Shopping in Mr. Goyal’s little store feels like WalMart on Black Friday. The Christmas music is merry, but the murmurs from shoppers that the place is a "mad house" are hard to miss. However, what makes the scene so unique is that most of the clients are non-Christian Indians. Fascinated by why so many Indians would be interested in Christmas, I ask a mother and daughter who just bought a wreath and big golden horn why they celebrate the holiday.
“We just like to decorate our house for Christmas,” says the mother. “More and more of our friends have been doing this in the last five years so we like to also.”
Outside, Megha Joneja, a bright-eyed mother of two, selects a four-foot-tall Christmas tree. “Christmas is mostly a party for us,” says Ms. Joneja. “But one of the reasons I feel it is so important to celebrate other people’s religious holidays is because I want my children to be exposed to as many different religion’s customs as possible.”
Though it appears the pandemonium so typical of Christmas in the states has now spread to India, essentially, the holiday is still an incredible example of religious understanding and cultural intelligence. Sometimes the spirit of Christmas finds you when you are least expecting it. Such was the case with me this week, when I got a visit from Mr. Singh, a jolly middle-aged Indian man who brings big jugs of drinking water to my house each week.
“This is for you, madam,” says Mr. Singh with a huge smile, handing me a tiny plastic Christmas tree. “Merry Christmas.”
Thousands of miles away from the place I grew up, my family, and the traditions that are most familiar this time of year, Singh’s gift was a reminder of what Christmas is really about.