World News

‘We Are Afraid of Christmas’: Tensions Dampen Holiday in India

Posted December 24, 2017 1:11 p.m. EST

NEW DELHI — Tehmina Yadav is a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man. The other night, she was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.

In India, a country that is about 80 percent Hindu, Christmas is becoming big business. Airlines play Christmas music, online vendors sell holiday gift baskets, and one especially enterprising young man, Kabir Mishra, rents out a contingent of Hindus dressed as Santa Claus.

“I can provide as many Santas as you want,” he said.

Sitting next to her Christmas tree at home in Delhi, Yadav said that in India, there was nothing strange about non-Christians celebrating Christmas. Indians have always observed a dizzying number of festivals regardless of religious affiliation, and even though Christians represent only 2.3 percent of the population, Christmas is recognized as a government holiday.

But as far-right Hindu groups have gained traction, India has changed. Christmas has now found itself caught in the cross hairs.

The authorities recently detained 32 carolers and the priests who came to help them. The wife of a prominent politician was excoriated online for endorsing a Christmas charity event, and earlier this month, a far-right Hindu group sent letters to schools warning them that celebrating Christmas would be done “at their own risk.” The group threatened unspecified consequences.

“We are afraid of Christmas this year,” A.C. Michael, the national coordinator of the United Christian Forum, an Indian advocacy group, said in a statement.

Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, some officials in his government pushed a short-lived campaign to change the official recognition of Christmas to “Good Governance Day.”

It is all part of a broader ideological battle that has produced countless acts of violence and harassment across India based on religious identity.

While reflecting on decades of celebrating Christmas, Yadav expressed concern that what used to be just a fun holiday had become increasingly policed and intertwined with religion.

“Earlier on, you celebrated everything,” she said. “You kind of absorbed everybody’s culture and tradition without questioning it. Now, you don’t. Religion has become a new mantra for people.”

When British colonizers came to India, they brought Christmas with them. Sanjay Srivastava, a sociology professor at Delhi University, said the global spread of consumerism had helped popularize the holiday, especially among a moneyed Hindu elite.

But as Christmas and other Western holidays like Halloween have gained popularity, Indian cities have also become more segregated along religious lines, he said. Christmas is often celebrated by Indians looking to appear cosmopolitan, he added, but who do not necessarily see Christianity as having a “legitimate role in the cultural life of the country.”

In some parts of India this month, tensions over the holiday erupted into confrontations.

On Dec. 14, carolers affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church were assaulted by a mob in a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. But instead of charging members of the mob with a crime, the police arrested the carolers under a law against inflaming religious sentiments.

Eight priests who came to the police station to help were also detained. Outside the station, their car was set on fire.

“We are pained, and we are shocked,” said Cardinal Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, at a news conference in New Delhi. “This incident creates further anxiety in the minds and hearts of the Christian faithful and the minorities in the country.”

Amruta Fadnavis, the wife of the chief minister of Maharashtra state, also provoked a major controversy by promoting a Christmas charity event for poor children in Mumbai. Social media exchanges became so intense that Fadnavis wrote a follow-up message on Twitter affirming that she was a “proud Hindu.”

Last Monday, the Hindu Jagran Manch, a far-right Hindu group, sent letters to schools in the north Indian city of Aligarh warning administrators of repercussions if they celebrated the holiday in classrooms. The local police said they would provide security in all schools and colleges in Aligarh on Dec. 25.

A Christmas celebration in a village in Rajasthan was also disrupted on Tuesday, according to news reports, when a different Hindu group descended on a community center there, throwing away hymn books and accusing participants of trying to convert locals.

Chetan Rajhans, 34, a spokesman for the Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing Hindu organization, said Christmas promoted a “Western culture of materialistic immorality.”

“Christmas is a festival that is not conducive to Indian culture or tradition, and it is in schools that the first level of conversion begins,” he said by telephone, referring to classroom celebrations in which Santa distributes presents and children “begin to get attracted towards Christianity.”

“We have started copying European culture in the garb of celebrating Western festivals,” he added.

But despite these contentious questions hanging over the holiday, Christmas preparations moved forward in much of the country, with vendors reporting brisk sales of Christmas-themed gift baskets, stuffed Santas and miniature Nativity scenes.

“Every year, it’s just crazy,” said Radhika Anand, who helps manage Christmas events at a big shopping center in Delhi. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not a Christian. Indians believe in celebrating.” Sifting through costumes of the Virgin Mary for her 5-year-old daughter at a middle-class market across town, Priyanka Haldunia, 32, said that though she is Hindu, she thought of Christmas as a teaching opportunity.

“We visit a gurdwara as often as a mosque,” she said, referring to a place of worship for Sikhs. “This is a form of national integration that I want to instill in my daughter. It is very important.”

Surabhi Sukriti, 37, from Mumbai, said Christmas was so widely celebrated in her housing complex that visitors were shocked to learn how few Christians actually lived there. She and her family celebrate the holiday by baking pastries and recruiting Sukriti's brother to dress up as Santa Claus to deliver presents to her 8-year-old son.

At Tehmina Yadav’s home, Reyhaan, 13, her son, has submitted his Christmas list (a typewriter and a camera), and earlier this month, Yadav started planning the food menu: a leg of ham, quiche and a cheese board. Other families said that they ate typical Indian sweets like gulab jamun, a ball of dough dipped in liquid sugar, on the holiday. Yadav acknowledged that she came from a position of privilege. She lives in a cosmopolitan neighborhood where observing three religions in one household does not provoke the same ire that it might in some Indian villages.

But she noted that the same gusto for celebrating Christmas did not necessarily extend to other holidays in her social circle.

“If you were to ask me how many of my Hindu friends even want to celebrate Eid, it would probably be zero,” she said, referring to Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim religious observance.

Minhazz Majumdar, 48, Yadav’s sister, said the growing emphasis on identity politics in India meant religion, caste and holiday celebrations were becoming increasingly used to polarize communities.

“The India we grew up in was definitely more inclusive,” she said. “It has not descended into madness totally, because there are still people who are trying to show the universality of our cultural experiences, but it’s like a pot that is on the boil.”