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The business of Christmas

December 25, 2004 17:01 IST

Every Christmas is a sharp reminder of Goldsmith's lines in She Stoops to Conquer about the indigent world being clothed out of the trimmings of the vain.

Yet, in spite of abhorrent consumerism, there is comfort in the knowledge that the tide of Hindu fervour makes not the slightest impression on preferred ways of celebrating the festivals of what is for the overwhelming majority an alien creed.

The nature of such observance has altered dramatically since I was a child. It seems quaint now but India was officially Christian then.

When Major-General Claude Martin, the French soldier of fortune who became commander-in-chief of the Oudh forces, left his wealth to "the Christian church" to found three schools in Lucknow, Calcutta and Lyons, the Roman Catholics claimed the money, arguing that Martin had been baptised a Catholic. So did the Anglicans.

The dispute went to the Privy Council in London, which ruled that those words in his will could mean only the Anglicans since the Church of England was India's "established church".

Its head was the Metropolitan based in Kolkata – then Calcutta -- of which he was the bishop. The last holder of that office, Lakdasa de Mel, a patrician Sinhalese, educated at Oxford, as witty as he was erudite, had given most of his family fortune to charity. Visiting him in Karunagela near Colombo during his last illness, I asked why he didn't go to Europe or America for treatment.

"My dear boy," he exclaimed, eyes flashing, "The doctors in this country were good enough to bring me into the world. In my last moments, I am not going to cast on them the supreme insult of saying they are not good enough to take me out of it!"

There were only three or four non-Christians in my class at school and we ran with the rest. I knew the Lord's Prayer backwards and belted out our favourite hymn, "Lord dismiss us with thy blessing …" with full-throated vigour on the last day of term. Similarly, we only mumbled through "Lord behold us with thy blessing …" when term started. I regretted that my feeble voice could not follow the high notes of the Benediction, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel …"

Yet, in spite of this strong Christian bias, we were not aware of the jollification that is now identified with the faith. Of St Valentine's Day we had only theoretical knowledge.

No one that I knew sent or received cards, and it would have been unthinkable for a stationery shop in Kanpur -- Cawnpore then -- to incur the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists by going to town on Valentine missives. Or for a goldsmith in middle class Calcutta to enclose his front door in a huge red satin heart.

Easter was "chota din" (Christmas being "bada din") but not much traffic in easter eggs. Now, even committed Hindu revivalists send Christmas and New Year greetings cards though carefully avoiding the specific words.

My family's only Christmas indulgence was the turkey, and it was really culinary for my mother enjoyed cooking. She would go to the New Market several weeks earlier, choose her bird, have it ringed, and then go back the day before to see it dressed and cleaned.

It was important to be in at the kill. My mother shirked the unpleasantness once and found when she got home that the butcher had palmed off a packet of skin and bones on her.

Now, as I watch blazing shop windows, read the newspapers, both news and advertisements, gaze upon the small screen and listen to radio jingles, it seems that we are in a commercial Jerusalem. There are the special nights, the special hotel menus, the seasonal drinking and dancing.

Even the solemnity of Midnight Mass has become a fashionable after-dinner rendezvous. Everything is festive, everyone is celebrating.  But celebrating with a flamboyance that reminds me of the Singaporean advertisement, "I shop, therefore I am" that makes mockery of Descartes' sublimity, "I think, therefore I am".

This secular Christmas, inspired by the profit motive, seeped in on us, I think, in the sixties. The sahibs were long gone but I remember noticing one December that various lampposts and meter boxes in Park Street had been swathed in cottonwool.

Presumably the shops had done it to evoke a White Christmas in some distant northern clime. Could this have been the beginning of globalisation? Or was it the dying thrash of an empire that survives in cultural disembodiment?

But, no, I won't blame the departed British except for one thing: they set a pattern of success for all time. Rich Indians must behave as they imagine our former rulers did. And as that rule fades further into the mists of the past, imagination takes over from memory.

As always with imagination, other influences also have a bearing -- the cinema, reports of Western fashion and, more than anything else, the hard and soft sell strategies of the manufacturing, wholesale and retail industries. Christmas, Eid or Dussehra, it makes no difference to salesmanship.

We can be certain that no religion will be snuffed out so long as it offers scope to businessmen. Nor will any one religion establish a monopoly if money can be made from the others. There is hope in that for our cultural pluralism.

And so a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all readers of this column.
Sunanda K Datta Ray