As I said, regardless of religion, these days many families celebrate Christmas in some form: erecting a tree, decorating cookies, and exchanging gifts. But I was curious about the traditions of families who have been celebrating it for generations, long before the internet brought the culture to everyone’s doorstep. I interviewed four people and their answers were evocative of a time when things were simpler, and more meaning was found in the intangible aspects of Christmas. Perhaps reading their memories will inspire some of you to start your own similar traditions!
How did your family celebrate Christmas while you were growing up? Including activities leading up to the 24th and 25th.
Paloma Rao, VJ and TV host
I come from a big family (I have 2 brothers and 1 sister) so Christmas was always loud and fun. Well, with 4 kids it was loud all year round, but more so during the festive season! My mum was very much the captain of the Christmas ship, so Christmas carols would begin on the 1st of December. Mum would make homemade sweet treats starting 2 weeks or more in advance and most often conscripted all of us kids into service as well. Of course, the best part was putting up the decorations – the tree (which in those days was an actual real one we would harvest from our friend’s property near the beach) and my mum’s star of the show: the nativity scene. She would bring actual hay that she always used to source, (from God only knows where in a way that only moms can), and my sister Rochelle and I would love placing all the little figurines inside. Baby Jesus was only brought out on Christmas Day!
Now let me remind you these were the days before online shopping and being able to casually go out to a mall and stock up on Christmas decorations and other such items. I only now as an adult truly appreciate the effort my Mom put into making all this happen. So this means being amazingly resourceful and creative, again in a way that only Moms can. Once, one of our cats broke one of the 3 Kings in the nativity scene, and there have to be 3! Mum went out hunting for it and couldn’t manage to get one because obviously, you have to buy them as a set. So she took one of the shepherds, got some gold paint, painted a crown on his head, and embellished his cloak. You may have noticed one slightly odd-looking King if you looked closely but it was our little secret!
We would also go Christmas carolling or pay a visit to an old age home and spend some time with the folks there.
Christmas Eve was usually at midnight Mass, followed by Christmas cake and wine at home. Christmas Day was a late breakfast and sometimes presents. Our parents never really focused on this aspect of Christmas and as an adult, I’m grateful for that. People get so stressed out about buying and giving presents and that’s really not what Christmas is about! It’s about being with family and friends and surrounded by love, and yes all the amazing food as well!
Nancy, small business owner
One of my special memories growing up was going carolling with my cousins and the youth group from Church. All of us huddled up in a bus going from home to home until the wee hours of the morning was super fun, and the delicious snacks packed along was the cherry on top.
Another memory that I cherish was making the Christmas cake with my mom and my grand aunt. The smell of the freshly baked Christmas cake and the first slice of warm cake straight from the oven always brings a smile to my face.
My sister and I were usually shipped off unaccompanied via Indian Airlines to Cochin to spend our December vacation with my grandparents. That said, we loved every minute of our holidays with them and used to cry our guts out at the airport on the way back to Chennai.
In Kerala, Christmas is traditionally a much bigger celebration than in Tamil Nadu. In those days, as you stared out of the window while driving through Cochin, you would notice that most homes had huge lit-up paper stars in various colours suspended from the trees in the garden. And the bakeries (anyone not from the state is shocked by the number of bakeries in Kerala, you’d be hard pressed not to find one on every road!) would be overflowing with Christmas cake and other festive goodies.
Our holidays started in the middle of December and we would get to Cochin around the 15th of the month. One of the first things we would do was put up the Christmas tree and other decorations all over the house. In those days, other than a couple of gorgeous antique mercury balls, the only decorations we had at our disposal were shiny tinsel and other plasticky items. Nevertheless, we used to have a blast and thought our humble Christmas tree was the most beautiful thing in the world!
Every evening, prior to dinner, my grandfather would habitually listen to music from his LP player while nursing a whiskey and soda. We used to huddle around him and chat about everything under the sun. Every cool December evening, the house would echo with Christmas classics by Jim Reaves and Frank Sinatra. It was great fun and I have the loveliest memories of spending these precious times with my grandparents.
As it got closer to Christmas, my parents would also come down to Cochin. On the 24th night, we would all sit around and joke about Santa visiting and dropping off presents (which sooner than later, I realised was my parents/grandparents). The adults would drink mulled wine that we sneaked a sip off of now and then. The neighbourhood choir would walk around to each house singing Christmas carols and would depart with a small tip.
As a child, Christmas was by far one of the most exciting days of the year. We would jump out of bed and rush down the stairs to open our presents spread under the tree. This was followed by a Christmas lunch which was usually a feast consisting of roast turkey, glazed ham, salads, bread filled baskets etc., and topped off with Christmas pudding and brandy butter!
Which tradition was you most excited about as a kid? And which tradition are you most excited about as an adult?
Maria, stay at home mom
Growing up, Christmas was always about family. I have a lot of cousins and we would all be together for our Christmas holidays. So Christmas was more about the entire 10 days that we had holidays, not just the one day. I’m not sure I had specific traditions, but at the risk of sounding cliché there were always presents under the tree on Christmas. I still get excited about that, but now it’s more about the kids getting presents and you getting some drawings the kids made last minute because they realised no one put a present under the tree for you!
The tradition of going to midnight mass with my family in our Sunday best and the merriment after we came back was most exciting. As an adult, putting on Christmas carols and singing along while decorating the tree with my kids every year fills me with joy.
As a kid, decorating the tree of course, along with making handmade decorations. Rochelle and I worked for many hours on these. And my mom painstakingly saved these for YEARS. As an adult decorating the tree remains my favourite, but I also love Christmas carolling and oh yes, dressing up in crazy themed Christmas costumes!
How did celebrating it change after marriage? Did you incorporate any of your spouse’s family’s traditions?
My wife and I have an interfaith marriage and my wife is a Hindu. But neither of us is extremely religious and we consider ourselves more spiritual. Hence we enjoy and take part in the festivities of both religions.
As far as Christmas is concerned, we continue to do whatever I did growing up, only now we do the same as a family! She throws herself into the celebrations by singing carols and going all out to organise lunch/ dinner for our extended families during Christmas.
In addition, as you would know, nowadays Christmas has also become so much more than just a Christian festival and everyone celebrates it.
My mother in law was a phenomenal cook, to say the least, so food is a big part of any celebration at my husband’s household. I was always excited for Christmas lunch and would be dreaming about the roast chicken right from the previous night! And the best part is Paul and I creating our own special Christmas traditions. We love having friends over, and I love a good theme party, so on the invite, I always stress that people come in Christmas colours. Plus we love having fun with the ‘gifting’ angle. Like mixing up real presents with gag gifts under the tree just for some hilarity or giving people limits on how much they can spend on gifts, just to see them get creative.
Would you ever be keen to spend a Christmas abroad/on a holiday, or do you prefer to celebrate at home in Chennai?Maria
We have on many occasions been travelling for Christmas and it has been quite lovely. I think wherever you are; you can do something a little special for Christmas.
Yes, I would be happily celebrating it anywhere in the world, as long as I’m with my wife and kids!
I love spending Christmas at home with my family!
I always used to think Christmas makes the most sense being at home, but then one year we ended up in New York in early December and were blown away. Like whoa. So I would totally celebrate Christmas in America if the opportunity were to present itself.
As you can see from their answers, dear readers, the true spirit of Christmas lies in family togetherness and simple things like the smell of warm Christmas cake and the fun of singing carols. And while it might be easy to buy all sorts of decorations these days, what we all cherish more are those items that were passed down from our parents or grandparents. For example, my Christmas miracle last year was discovering that my mother had brought all my favourite childhood Christmas decorations from the U.S. to her parent’s old house in Mylapore. As I unboxed each one, memories came flooding back, and my children hovered over me curiously, wondering what I was squealing about. Decorating my house with these beauties was one way for me to feel connected to home, a place that felt farther than ever during the height of the pandemic.
I hope those of you who have been apart from family are able to come together for the holidays this year and capture some of the joy shared here. Merry Christmas!
– By Priyanka Acharya