At 7:00 am my four year old nephew barged into my room (I’d already been awake over an hour. Ah, jet lag!). “Uncle … come see the Christmas tree!” “My Papa put the lights up!” he chattered excitedly. It surprises my friends in the US no end, the extent to which Christmas is celebrated in India, where Christians make up only about 3 or 4 per cent of the population. Celebrating the festivals of one’s neighbors of different faiths is fairly common across the subcontinent. I would be surprised if Hindus or Muslims in urban India would be offended by someone wishing them “Merry Christmas.” They’d wish you right back! And with growing globalization, the celebration of Christmas and “the Holidays” is only likely to increase.
I thought I’d never make it to the 9:00 am at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Delhi. At 8:30 I was out on Mathura Road, with not a rickshaw in sight (I’m not really familiar with the geography of Delhi, and I’d rather not risk driving one of the bro’s shiny new cars). One finally appeared, but he wasn’t interested in going out to Gol Dak Khana (The Round Post Office, the landmark for the Cathedral). Several others passed by, but were occupied. Standing a few feet away from me was a gentleman in a suit and a Nepali hat, also, it appeared, waiting for a rickshaw. Darn. Competition! Another rickshaw slowed down, but the driver shook his head when I asked him “Gol Dak Khana jaogey?” Maybe I’m not familiar with the Delhi culture – in Bombay, when a rickshawalla or cabbie says no, they mean it. Perhaps here one is supposed to bargain? The rick pulled up in front of the Nepali gentleman, who was also wanting to go to Gol Dak Khana. He appeared to haggle with the driver, and then got in. I rushed up and asked if I could hop in as well. So, we were off in the hazy winter morning, the temps in the upper 50s, and a cold breeze buffeting the little rickshaw compartment.
Turns out the Nepali gent was from Darjeeling in Sikkim, visiting his son who lives in Bhogul, and was also headed to church – a CNI (Church of North India, i.e. Protestant) congregation not far from the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Within 15 minutes we were at the Post Office, and I hopped off, handing him twenty rupees.
The entrance hymn had just started, after which the celebrant’s introduction seemed to last longer than some homilies I’ve heard in the US. I told my “Mass Critic tapes” to shut off, and tried to quiet myself down to worship. The beautiful cathedral was almost full, with a riot of multicolored shawls draped around the women, the men in jackets or sweaters. A line of penitents lined the left and right naves, where priests sat behind small screens labeled “English/Malayalam,” hearing confessions. It’s a practice I’ve encountered in Italy – this was the first time I was seeing it in India. I’m a little ambivalent about the whole thing – smacks way too much of “sacramental magic” in my opinion (“get your confession in to get your Eucharist.”). It’s approved by the Holy See, however, and, it was nice to see so many people lined up for confession! Despite the lackluster and patently unrehearsed performance from the choir (hardly a surprise in my experience in India), the congregation sang with gusto. The homily was a beautiful reflection on the Visitation, combining several themes – the humanity of Christ, the role of His mother in the Incarnation, the ministry of John the Baptist, as well as talking about promoting a culture of life. I found myself praying for a situation I’m aware of (I can’t give more details, obviously), of a pregnancy that seems that it might end with the baby’s life being extinguished.
Just as the Eucharistic Prayer was starting, a young couple came in and sat on my pew (one of the few that wasn’t completely full). From their lack of familiarity with the responses and the rhythm of the liturgy, I surmised that they were not Christian. I would suspect that it was hardly unusual that many Hindus and even Muslims might show up at churches during Christmastide.
To distribute communion, in addition to the celebrant, there were a permanent deacon (still relatively new in India), a religious sister and a young Franciscan. As I lined up in the Communion procession, I noticed that the non-Christian couple was just ahead of me. She received the Host from the sister, who must have noticed something amiss (perhaps, the lack of the “Amen” response). “Are you a Christian?” she whispered. The lady shook her head. Sister gently took the Host back from her, smiled, and gave her a blessing. It was done very gently and smoothly, and if I weren’t just steps behind them, I wouldn’t have noticed.
The deacon read out the church notices, mainly services for Christmas and the following weekend. Christmas morning had an impressive line up of Masses, starting with a 7:30 am Malabar liturgy, 9:00 am in English, 10:15 in Hindi, 11:30 in English and even a 6:00 pm in English, all out in the grounds of the next door St. Columba school.
Mass ended with a Marian hymn, and, as seems to be normal in India, the bulk of the congregation remained behind in silent prayer. I slipped out a few minutes later. Outside the gates a host of hawkers had set up shop, with a variety of Christmas-ware spread out on tarps on the ground, mainly cards and tinsel. I picked up two Santa hats for the niece and nephew (she wanted Rs. 35 each. I absolutely loathe haggling; however, it is after all a question of izzat [honor], so I brought the price down by five rupees each.) and got into one of the waiting rickshaws.