What is the truth? What is identity? Is there a universal value? Are there borders which are not barriers but a simple diversity? Why do I love Rudolph when I have never seen a real reindeer? Questions that come to my mind from time to time, but especially in December.
Also in December, some songs start to play by themselves in my head. One after the other. In the voices of Jim Reeves and Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Endlessly. A continuous loop.
I was six when I started primary school in Bombay, now Mumbai. In fact, it was also called Mumbai at the time. I remember it because that is when I started to learn Marathi formally and when we spoke Marathi we always called the city Mumbai. In Hindi it was called Bumbai. I went to St Joseph High School in Juhu. To be precise, it was part of the Church of St. Joseph of Juhu, which in turn was an integral part of the life of the local community that was part of the parish of St. Joseph.
Juhu was a picturesque neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Small houses, wine merchants, a vegetable, meat and fish market, shops selling imported products and bakeries dot the area. To this day, I still look for a bakery whenever I come across a church or chapel anywhere in the world. While walking in Juhu, one came across concrete and wooden crosses with the letters INRI written on them. It took many years before I learned that the letters stood for IÄsus NazarÄnus, RÄx IÅ«daeÅrum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). But even as a child, I knew that December 25 was Christmas and that it marked the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.
Growing up, I was exposed to several different dialects of Marathi and Konkani, spoken by my classmates, friends, teachers and the people I met in Juhu, Santa Cruz and Bandra. It seemed natural that my classmates spoke English as the main language and spoke Konkani or Marathi, also as the main languages. Based on the accent or tune of the dialect they spoke and the words they used, I placed them as being from Goa or Konkan or Mumbai or Pune.
Words have always intrigued me, especially ones that didn’t seem to have a similar source, no matter what language I was using. So I read and asked and thought and it was years later in history that I found answers. Like batata. It turns out that this word Marathi and Konkani comes to us from the Portuguese, who introduced potatoes to India when they started cultivating along the west coast. (The British later introduced it to Bengal as Alu, from where the word probably entered Bengali and later into the hill states of northern India from where it probably entered Hindi vocabulary).
Christmas entered my life in Mumbai, but my first meeting was not at school. I grew up in Santa Cruz, which means Holy Cross in Portuguese. I was living in a Life Insurance Corporation of India housing colony and that meant living and playing with people from different parts of the country and different financial backgrounds. In the colony, we spoke mainly Hindi. At home we spoke Bengali. At school we spoke English and Marathi and a bit of Konkani. We celebrated every festival regardless of religious background and Christmas was a big event. Christmas is a cultural and social holiday for many non-Christian Indians like me. And it is a religious, cultural and social festival for Christians in India.
It seemed natural to me to wonder how it was that Christmas and Santa Claus reached me and stayed with me. The region around Mumbai and the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra has been inhabited by farmers, farmers and fishermen for over two centuries. Historically, the region was part of the former Mauryan Empire from the 2nd century BCE and an important Buddhist center in antiquity. Subsequently, it was under the rule of successive Hindu kingdoms until the 13th century. It was then briefly under the Sultanate of Gujarat, before the Portuguese Empire took control in 1534.
When the Portuguese arrived, the region included several distinct islands along the Arabian Sea coast, the most important being Salsette (the largest) and the Seven Bombaim Islands (Mahim, Parel, Mazagaon, Worli, l Bombay Island, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island). Salsette is said to be derived from the Marathi word Sasashti which refers to the 66 original villages of the island. It was the Portuguese who spread Roman Catholicism in the region, building many original churches in and around Mumbai over the next two centuries, with the exception of hospitals and schools. In 1661, the Portuguese gave the Seven Isles of Bombay to the British as part of the marriage dowry of Catherine of Braganza who married the English king, Charles II. Salsette remained under Portuguese control until 1739, when Peshwa Baji Rao I’s brother, Chimaji Appa, led the Pune Marathas to victory and captured the island. The British took control of Salsette from the Marathes in 1774. Over the next 100 years, they reclaimed land from the sea and connected the islands (including Trombay) to form the landmass which is now Mumbai (city and suburb). ).
The Saint-Joseph church would have been founded in 1853 in Juvem on the island of Salsette (Juvem was the Portuguese name of Juhu). The high school was established in 1905 and I studied there from 1976 to 1984. Many of my classmates from St Joseph’s of the Juhu area were probably descendants of the native Indian Catholics, local Marathi speaking communities and the konkani who embraced Roman Catholic Christianity. in the 16th century and beyond. It was in Saint-Joseph that I first met Father Christmas, during the school Christmas celebrations in 1976. Protestant / reformist perspectives entered my life later in the 1990s and 2000s. in Bengaluru, Pune and Cochin.
Santa Claus came to me from America, but his journey dates back to a historical figure, the fourth century philanthropist, Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop of Greek descent who lived in Myra (now in Turkey) and was famous for his habit of giving secret gifts. Until the Middle Ages, December 6 (the day of his departure) was celebrated as a day of offering to children. Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift giver throughout Western and Central Europe and over the past millennium and a half the historical figure has become the kind-hearted Sinterklaas in Dutch and Belgian tradition.
Before the Christian era, people of German descent celebrated a winter festival, with Yule concentrating around Odin. There were several Christmas traditions that are still remembered, including that of Odin entering the house through the fireplace. In the 16th century, the concept of Santa Claus emerged in England along the same lines. In the traditions of the United States and Canada, it is said that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and people leave milk and cookies for Santa to eat when he visits. Eventually all the different traditions merged to form the modern Santa Claus and the date of the celebration was moved to December 25 to strengthen religious association. Much of the image of Santa Claus we celebrate today is the work of creative writers, artists and merchants. For example, Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas featured the fictional eight reindeer for the sleigh. Rudolph was created by Robert May in 1939. I came across St Nicholas thanks to Doris Day who sang it on the It’s Magic (Ol ‘Saint Nicholas) album from 1948. However, it is James Stewart in the role of Harry Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra which became my beacon and made Christmas a permanent part of my life.
So what is the truth? Identity? Does it matter? Everything changes over time. Just like values. I love Rudolph as part of the Santa Claus tradition because I understand what it means to be an alien and how Rudolp represents hope. It doesn’t matter if I see a reindeer or if Santa has ever ridden on a sleigh or come down from a chimney or if people left him milk, beer or chai as it was all contextual to the region. I loved Christmas as a kid because it helped me understand the world and the traditions of my classmates and neighbors. I love Christmas now because it connects me to a bigger world and more people, who also connect to my traditions. Like all other festivals in India, Christmas helps us fight discrimination, respect the boundaries that protect the diversity of human experience but break down the barriers that separate us.
And there is a hand, my faithful fire
And gie is your hand …
We’ll take another cup of kindness
For auld lang syne
Mukherjee, author, learning technology designer and management consultant, is the founder of Mountain Walker and chief strategy advisor, Peak Pacific. He can be reached @ [email protected]