I’ve never liked Christmas much.
That’s not to say that I’ve never enjoyed Christmas.
Especially as a kid of course, when I actually believed in Santa Claus.
He was busy back in those days, bringing presents to kids all over the world, even distant South Australia. Heavy red clothes, long white beard, sack of presents, sled, and reindeer – in Australia in the middle of summer. 35 degrees plus and the air conditioner running. A synthetic Christmas tree in the lounge covered in fake snow and bright coloured lights. Another English tradition transferred to the Antipodes lock, stock and barrel. Christmas dinner: roast turkey and vegetables followed by plum pudding and custard.
That was Christmas.
There never seemed to be much about the supposed reason for Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ I mean. Which is remarkable considering that I was a believer then, and went to church every Sunday. I suppose it went like this: a time came when I no longer believed in Father Christmas and no longer believed in God.
Then Christmas lost its meaning and it’s magic.
Really, though, like many other people in the world, Christmas Day for me has been reduced to a farce by the way in which it has been so blatantly commercialised. Christmas Day is Consumer Event of the Year, the penultimate occasion when the advertising industry goes into overdrive and everyone buys, eats and drinks – to excess and beyond excess.
What has this got to do with Jesus and his message of compassion, love and tolerance?
The Jesus who castigated the money lenders in the temple?
The Jesus who praised the meek, the poor, the dispossessed?
Commercial Christmas is as far removed from Jesus – as waging war in his name. It seems as if the capacity of the human race for breathtaking hypocrisy knows no limits.
Is it possible to escape Christmas?
To go somewhere where there is no mention of it, no trace of its existence?
In 2007 after a lifetime of associating Christmas with all sorts of things or mostly, just surviving it, I finally sat down and tried to think of a place I could go to where no one celebrated Christmas.
Some out-of-the-way, obscure place in India – where there were no Christians.
Can’t miss I thought. So there I was: flew into Mumbai, went to Christian Goa and did some swimming for a few weeks – and then, in the last week, before the Dreaded Event was due to arrive, I left: got on local buses and began travelling inland in a south-easterly direction.
No particular destination.
Had a map and a guide book with me.
Only one overriding aim: NO CHRISTMAS!!
In the course of achieving my goal, I made some sacrifices: long days on beaten up, overcrowded buses; feelings of estrangement at finding myself in end of the world places; some lousy meals at none too hygienic ‘restaurants’.
My most memorable overnight stay was in a place called Terikere – on Christmas Eve.
It had not been my idea to stay there. My destination for that day was a city called Shimoga (in the south-east of the state of Karnataka). I got there late in an afternoon but then found that all the hotels were booked up. Back at the bus station, I got my map out tried to find a nearby town which was big enough to have some kind of accommodation. A local advised me to try Terikere; he showed me which local bus to get on and after an hour bumping along on a pot holed road, I reached it in the dying hours of the day.
My spirits sank as soon as I saw it.
Even by rural Indian standards, Terikere was a dump; a chaos of shabby stalls and grubby two-story cement buildings spread along the sides of the road.
I got down and walked a good kilometre along the busy road, weaving my way through milling crowds of people and trying to avoid being run over by trucks and motor bikes and cars. People stopped dead in their tracks when they saw me and stared, as if struck by a thunderbolt. Dog-tired, I tried to find out where a hotel was.
There was only one hotel.
The Hotel Ramnath.
It was a dilapidated two-story building situated at the end of unpaved side street. At the edges of the side-street, pigs rooted around in piles of rubbish and barefoot men pissed against the side of a half-fallen down wall.
When the owner of the hotel showed me to a room and opened the door, a wave of mosquitoes, rudely disturbed by his intrusion into what clearly was their citadel, rose in indignation. The room was a windowless dungeon with a filthy, cockroach infested bathroom and two stretcher beds with grimy pillows and mattresses. A bare light globe hung from the ceiling at the end of a strand of wire.
I didn’t have too many choices about whether to take the room or not. The sun had set and night was descending quickly. There was only one option; to stay there the night and the next morning – Christmas Day – get on the first bus out of this hell hole.
I began to wonder what it was exactly I was trying to escape from.
A few hours later I ended up in a place called Belur. It was a Hindu pilgrimage town and had a temple complex dating from the eleventh century. This I thought was bound to be place where no one would be celebrating Christmas. It was also big enough to have a decent hotel.
From the bus station, Belur’s main road ran for about two kilometres before it met the entrance to the temple. Along the road were hotels, stalls, open markets, shops and restaurants. My first stop, about half way down, was the Karnataka State Government Tourist Hotel. The proprietor, who I met in the dining room, was a nice old man with a red stripe on his forehead.
Unfortunately, his hotel was full; but he gave me a good tip: opposite his hotel was one which had been only recently built and which not many people knew about yet; I could try there, he said.
I did, and luckily, it had a room.
There were no other westerners in Belur.
I was the only one.
It wasn’t a bad place to be – but I had hardly escaped Christmas.
What I got instead was an Indian Christmas.
Most Indians were Hindus weren’t they?
Well yes, but this, I realised rather belatedly, was half the problem.
They were polytheistic; they worshipped a multiplicity of Gods. Add one more God named Jesus Christ to the pantheon, and hey, what was the problem?
They loved any kind of religious celebration.
They loved religion and everything to do with it – and most of them did so with a touching mixture of humour and reverence.
I should have known that a Hindu temple town was an unlikely place to be escaping Christmas.
At the bus station I had bought an English language newspaper, The Times of India. After a shower and a change of clothes, I scanned the paper.
Heading its front page was:
‘Santa Meets Saddu on Banks of Ganga’
Beneath it was a big photo of an Indian Santa Claus– yes, long white beard, red clothes, sack over his shoulder – meeting a half -naked Saddu with long matted hair, loin cloth, and a trident spear on the steps of the sacred River Ganges at Varanasi.
On the following pages I found:
Santa’s Sand Sculpture Sets Record
On the beach in Bhubaneswhar, Sudasan Patnaik, with the assistance of 15 school children built a sand sculpture of Santa which was 30 metres long, 10 metres wide, and three metres high. He used 1000 tons of sand. ‘I have been officially informed that my Santa will find entry in the 2007 edition of the Limca Book of Records’ he said proudly.
Santa Auntie Brings Cheer
In Ahmedabad the 43 year old wife of a university lecturer donned a Santa Claus attire and drove around the city in a truck distributing presents to orphanages and schools for the physically handicapped. She began doing this five years ago when her husband Manesh did not have the nerve for it. ‘Being a lecturer, I was apprehensive about being known on campus as Mr Santa Claus’ said he.
I went back to the Karnataka Tourist Hotel for breakfast.
The dining room had a good feel to it. It was big and roomy with a high ceiling. The tables and chairs were well spaced out, instead of in your usual Indian dhaba where they were crammed in close to one another ( the idea being to get as many people in as possible).
Besides the friendly proprietor and the good food (though I could have done without the sounds coming from the kitchen of the cook coughing and spitting) I also took a shine to the place because of the sparrows. They flew in through the open door and hopped around cheekily on the tables pecking up the crumbs and bits of food left over by a party of Indian pilgrims who had dined earlier in the morning. The proprietor made no attempt to frighten them away. When he saw me avidly watching them, he motioned for me to leave my chair; he led me to the end of the dining room where two sparrows were building a nest up on the wall behind a lamp
‘The birds are having babies’ he announced matter-of-factly.
‘Babies’ – it was a theme I was going to hear a lot about on Christmas Day 2007 and I don’t mean baby birds.
The hotel where I was staying was grandiosely named ‘Sumukha Residency (Govt. approved)’. Like so many ostentatiously named Indian hotels, the title bore little resemblance to the standard of accommodation on offer. This didn’t prevent the owners from having a big sign with the hotel’s name on it installed at the front of the hotel on the second story. Beneath the hotel sign was a big cloth banner on which was sprayed in bright, fluorescent paint:
‘Santa’s Special Discount Sari Sale’
I saw it of course on when I checked in: the hotel reception was next to where the sari sale was being held. But I had been so keen to get a room and have a shower that I had hardly noticed it. After breakfast and 5 cups of coffee (to which I added instant coffee which I always had with me) I certainly did see it. The Sari Sale was in what was normally a convention centre which was a part of the new hotel. It had a very high ceiling. All along the walls hung saris extended to their full length (nine metres). On three long rows of trestle tables were saris folded up. Nothing in the world is as intensely colourful as Indian saris. The cavernous convention centre was a blaze of colour; I had never seen so much colour concentrated into such a large area. Crowds of women – also dressed in bright saris – crowded the room, adding to the effect. In a corner was a big inflated plastic Santa. It must have been almost two meters tall. Inside it was a computerized voice mechanism. At regular intervals, a cold digital voice boomed out: ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Xmas’ – and then proceeded to sing ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ – with an American accent.
Later that morning I walked down back streets to see Belur’s famous temple.
It was very busy.
Belur was once the capital of a great Hindu empire led by a King Vishnavardhana who built the temple in honour of the God Vishnu. The temple reminded me in some respects of a kind of miniature Anchor Wat. There was a large square courtyard paved with ancient worn down stones and surrounded by a perimeter wall. There were three temples with elaborate carvings inside and out. Some of the carvings of the dancing girls reminded me of the erotic scenes in Kharajao. To be honest, the in’s and out’s of the temple’s history didn’t interest me much. It was an old temple, 900 years old, and this was far more important; I liked old temples because they had none of the gaudiness of the new ones. New temples were about as spiritual as concrete garden gnomes.
Belur drew a constant stream of pilgrims all year round, but the peak season – wouldn’t you know it? – was between Christmas and New Year. At that time, the kids got two weeks off school and most parents, a week off work. All over the country droves of Hindus pilgrims hit the roads to visit as many temples and holy places as possible in the week or ten days they had available. The wealthier ones went in cars and four-wheel drives and stayed in hotels and the poorer ones went in buses which they slept in at nights.
For the Hindus, all the stuff about Santa Claus aside, Christmas Day meant Baby Day. The way they saw it, it was a day to celebrate the birth of a God and by extension, the birth of God’s human creations.
Not long after I began wandering around the temple complex, a young couple with a baby approached me: they wanted to take a photo of me holding their baby. It was an odd request but alright, it was no bother. It was a kind of touching. I held the baby, a bundle of warmth squirming around in my arms, and the woman took several photos with a small camera of her husband and me holding the baby and then me holding the baby on my own (in those days, few Indians had mobile phones which could take decent photos). Before I knew it, I was inundated with requests to hold babies and be photographed. It was a bit of a laugh. I got into the swing of things.
At one point, a man shook my hand and said:
‘Happy Birthday with your Jesus!’
I rather liked the expression ‘Happy Birthday with your Jesus.’
Yes indeed, Christmas was the birthday of Jesus. I had never thought of that.
Mind you after an afternoon of holding babies and being photographed, it did get a bit tedious.
In the afternoon I went back to my room and fell into a deep sleep.
So much for my attempt to escape Christmas!
All those exhausting bus journeys and forlorn stops on the way – and I’d ended up in a place where I was lodged above a Santa’s Super Sari Sale with a giant Santa Claus singing carols in a computerised American accent, whilst at the famous old temple, the locals had seen me as ‘Mr. Baby Holder’: a reincarnation of Jesus Christ himself.
Nevertheless I must also record that my attempt to escape Christmas wasn’t a complete farce.
Early on Christmas night, I woke up, went over to the Karnataka Tourist Hotel, ordered a meal of the ubiquitous dal and rice and a pot of tea – and afterwards sauntered over to the temple complex.
Even by Indian standards, there were a lot of people there. The lights illuminated the temples and parts of the wide areas in between. On one side of the complex there were trees and they were out of the reach of the lights. I found my way there and sat down in pitch-darkness and watched the masses of people milling around the temples. Thankfully no one seemed to notice me. I was incognito, a pair of eyes, watching.
There was a pleasant, convivial atmosphere. Everyone was on holiday and having fun. There were people of all ages and as many women as men. Kids were playing chasey, couples holding hands, adults lining up to go inside the temples, and somewhere, someone was beating a drum and playing an instrument which sounded like a squeaky clarinet. Worship went together with carnival, reminding me of scenes I had seen in Mexico.
And I think that if Jesus had been sitting under those night trees, he would have been impressed by the sight of all those Hindus enjoying themselves at the temple…….