People often ask me if I celebrate Christmas. The question feels silly to me. Of course, everybody celebrates Christmas. Why wouldn’t they? Unfortunately, we live in a world where religious lines are drawn in the sand. I am born and raised Hindu. I identify as a Hindu. The idea that people celebrate all religious festivals is absurd. So people are genuinely curious and sensitive to my religious beliefs.
I actually grew up celebrating Christmas. My family told me all about Santa Claus. My mom and grandma would sneak in my presents from Santa.
I also went to Catholic school. Every year my school would put on a big Christmas show. I looked forward to it every year. I would vie to get on the school choir. I loved singing Christmas carols and songs. Then we would get a ten-day Christmas break at school.
My family would often make a trip to Goa during this break. Christmas is at a whole new level in Goa. The entire state is lit up with Christmas lights. Nativity scenes dot every street. Some villages even put up massive displays.
Christmas is no less in Bombay. Bombay lights up too. Victoria Terminus and the major landmarks are adorned with ostentatious lights. The Bandra area especially puts on quite a spectacular display. Old churches look even prettier the month of December. The festive spirit is all around. People will juggle several Christmas parties with friends and at the office. Everyone is dressing up in their finest.
It is also the best time of the year for people with a sweet tooth. Monginis has special sales on its cakes and pastries. But this is the time of the year to buy guava cheese, dodol and other treats at the Catholic bakeries. These treats are made only during Christmas.
Although, my personal favorites are the plum cakes and fruit cakes sold by home bakers. There was a street vendor a few blocks from our place who sold them. They were like crack to me. I had to buy a loaf every time I passed by.
Midnight mass wasn’t just a religious ritual. It was a social event. Many times non-Catholic friends would accompany their friends. I knew a group of girls who always went to midnight mass just because.
Where I come from though, religion is different. Religion is not religious at all. I’ve named it laissez-faire religion. It is where religion flows on its own course. Religions easily mix and share. Rigid norms are broken. New traditions emerge. These new traditions get woven into the community culturally. It is not about faith, but about community and people. Everyone comes together and celebrates everything. I call it laissez-faire religion. A practice that makes Bombay truly special.
Every festival, from every faith and every region, is celebrated equally. Eid means going to dawats and strolling Mohammed Ali Road for special Eid treats. Diwali means shopping for new clothes and jewelry, and lighting fireworks in the evening. Navratri means nine nights of late night dandiya and raas garba. For Holi, the entire neighborhood becomes a spectacle of color.
Before board exams, visa interviews or any personal challenge, everyone irrespective of faith lines up for darshan at Siddhivinayak. After all, how can you face challenges without the blessings of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles?
Syed Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a rich Muslim merchant who gave up all his possessions for Hajj. Originally, from Uzbekistan, he settled in Bombay. He became a popular Muslim saint in the region. Everyone in Bombay visits Haji Ali Dargah to pay their respects one time or another.
Mount Mary fair or Bandra Fair is a celebration of the ‘The Feast of the Nativity of Mary’. It is another annual celebration in Bombay. People line up to light candles and seek blessings from the mother. Then spend hours strolling the market in the ‘September Garden’ at the foot of the hill.
As you can see, festivals and rituals of all religions have become equally woven into the culture of Bombay. Religious labels are superficial and divisive. If it brings the community together, if it spreads joy and compassion, then it is worth celebrating.
In laissez-faire religion, it does not matter what you were born or identify as. What matters is how your faith evolves with the community. That is why it made perfect sense for a Hindu like me to go to Catholic school and vie to sing in the school choir. It made perfect sense when one of my friends identified as both an atheist and a Muslim. It made perfect sense for some of my friends to identify as Hindu-Muslim since their parents were of both faiths.
It was not always sunshine and rainbows. Laissez-faire religion is not easy. Nor is it embraced by everybody. There were always those people who discriminated and didn’t participate. There were always rumblings and tensions. Those people were the exception and not the norm. Once the rumbling manifest into something deadly. The city burned for days in the Bombay riots and witnessed bloodshed. But the city healed quickly too.
It is a city known for its resilience and spirit. Neither the wrath of mother nature nor the violence of terrorism can grind it down. During both the cataclysmic flood events, people opened their door to strangers and went out of their way to help. When terrorists held Bombay hostage, people went out of their way to care for their community. Bombay shows that our social and cultural bonding is greater than the divisive lines of faith.
When we migrated to the United States, we brought our laissez-faire religion with us. We continued to celebrate Christmas and embraced the Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and Memorial Day. We upped our Christmas game with flashy yard decorations and Christmas lights. We got a tree and filled it with ornaments. We made a big deal of decorating the tree and exchanging gifts. Everyone else in our immigrant neighborhood is embracing Christmas in their own way.
That is why the ‘War on Christmas’ is such an absurd idea. It is a completely imaginary and fabricated war to brainwash people into believing that immigrants are the enemies. It couldn’t be further from the truth. If everyone stopped drawing lines in the sand and got more laissez-faire with their beliefs, magical things can happen.
The hardlines of faith drawn all around will always be my greatest culture shock in America. Sadly, both USA and India today face the risk of these lines being deeper and harder.