A Very Calcutta Christmas

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By Perizad Dalal, Copy Edited by Adam Rizvi, TIO: Christmas in Calcutta is huge. It’s even called Bada Din.

It could be because of Calcutta’s unique status as the capital of British India, it could be because Calcutta was once home to a robust and vibrant Anglo-Indian community or it could simply be because the city loves a celebration. Whatever the reason, a Calcutta Christmas was and will always remain special.

There would be a buzz in the air a good few weeks before the 25th. The New Market would get all decked up for the occasion and stalls selling every conceivable kind of decoration and novelty would spring up in the center of the market. Tinsel and holly and fragile, multicolored baubles would beckon from the makeshift trestle tables set up to announce that the festive season had begun. Churches and schools would have their annual fetes, large open-air extravaganzas and always, always the theme would involve raising funds so that the less fortunate could also enjoy a little Christmas cheer. There would be the usual games like Ring Toss and Dart Boards and the food stalls would lure one with the most enticing aromas that wafted on the crisp winter breeze.

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In the building where we lived, Aunty Ayesha (Chatterjee), organized the annual Nativity Play. In the trademark Calcutta spirit of inclusiveness, the lift man’s daughter and the driver’s son would all get to play a part. Costumes were lovingly created out of bed sheets, shawls, and hairbands (for the shepherds), my mum who is quite a wiz at art n craft would fashion halos and wings out of everyday materials so that everyone looked quite ethereal. A small slice of Bethlehem in faraway Bengal!

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Funny incidents would abound. Little Jamaal who was one of the three kings forgot his line which got King Number Two, Saurav, pretty irate. He had just said “I bring frankincense” and was pretty pleased with himself.

As a tongue-tied Jamaal struggled to remember his part, Saurav pointed to him and chipped in “He brings myrrh!” Our cue that the show could go on after that little road bump!

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Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2021

Speaking of shows, one of the most eagerly awaited events was the “Songs of the Season” program that brought world-renowned Gospel singers like Archie Dennis and Jessy Dixon to the city. Together with some of the very talented local choirs, they created the magic that lived on long after the last note had reverberated. As kids, we were greatly amused by the affable Pastor who would start singing the National Anthem with great gusto but after Jana. Gana. Mana. was belted out the rest of the words seemed to evade him and he lip-synched something that sounded to us like “Hup two three four!” We kids found it hilarious as our parents chided us, such levity was out of place at a function of this caliber…! “Songs of the Season” brought to us beautiful carols and Christmas music that one had never heard before and cannot locate even now with our access to YouTube.

“A Child is born among us, a Son is given to us.” “ Tell it on the Mountain, Shout it Everywhere.”

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Yes, the message of Christmas, the music of Christmas, was everywhere. The Carol Singers would come to our building with a big brass band in tow and everyone would lean out of their verandahs and balconies and listen to the sounds, as the ‘nankhatai’ band did Natal! We kids would run downstairs and join in the caroling, knowing our goodies would still be waiting when we got back from some serious singing.

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Calcutta’s famous Park Street is a stone’s throw from home. It is to the city what Times Square is to New York. Generations of Calcuttans have thronged there to see the lights and take in some festive cheer while doing their own bit by blowing lustily on whistles and sundry hooting instruments to contribute to the din on …Bada Din! The festivities would carry on unabated all the way to New Year’s Eve.

As we tried to drop off to sleep, satiated with all the Christmas goodies and excitement, the sounds from Park Street would remind us the party wasn’t over. Not yet.

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Compiled & Curated By Humra Kidwai

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