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‘Tis the Season

With Christmas round the corner India twinkles, with a palpable nip in the air.

In December streets and stores get a Christmas makeover with lit-up roads, decorated Christmas trees, and eateries selling Christmas goodies like the famed plum cake. Christmas is a time for family, food, and festivities and each family has their own way of celebrating . Some families share their stories on how they celebrate the festival.

Family Bonds

In Mumbai, Cicilia Peter Sanyal says that in her family, Christmas celebrations start a month ahead. From decorating the tree to making sweets, it’s a month-long affair that her kids have waited for all year.

“My kids take great interest in decorating the crib and tree. We decorate our houses with sparkling lights, candles, bells, candy canes, stockings, and wreaths. We decorate the crib beautifully and place baby Jesus at midnight in it and the whole scene is admirable.”

Cicilia Peter Sanyal’s kids celebrating Christmas (images: Cicilia Peter Sanyal)

Her kids usually write a letter to Santa a week before Christmas  for presents. “Early in the morning the children wake up to find gifts kept under the Christmas tree. It’s nice to see how innocently the kids believe that it will come from Santa,” adds Sanyal.

On Christmas Eve, they visit an orphanage and distribute gifts and food to all the children. “We go for midnight mass on Christmas eve and offer prayers.”

Community Calling

In Urmila Malhotra’s home in Mumbai, Christmas is a time to spread cheer and pray.

 “We lay emphasis on Christmas mass, go for confession, and celebrate by inviting friends over. Many of my friends make the traditional special Christmas cake and share it among their neighbors. I sing in the Church choir and a few days before Christmas, we sing carols in a group serenading all the homes in our colony. We took candles and we had people joining us and it was a great festive atmosphere.” The Immaculate Conception Colony where Malhotra lives is decorated for Christmas, and even has a competition for the best crib.

Nativity scene (image: Urmila Malhotra)

Christmas the Anglo-Indian way

For Karen Martin who grew up in Bangalore, Christmas is her favorite time of year. Preparations begin two months in advance for the famous Christmas fruitcake.

“Every year I hear about old traditions and stories from the good old 1970’s from my maternal grandparents. I hear about how Christmas was in old Bangalore, and it is the most fun chit chat session while we cut up fruit.”

Karen Martin (image: Karen Martin)

Martin, founder of the House of Anglo, says preparation begins with chopping and soaking fruit in alcohol, then setting the jar aside.

“In the last week of November, we begin baking our traditional fruitcake as feeding the cake with alcohol is just a family thing. We feed our Christmas cake every other day with a mix of rum or homemade orange infused whiskey. We take turns in feeding the cake and packing it back into the airtight cake tin.”  Baking the cake while playing Christmas carols is the best time  adds Martin.


Traditions & Decorations

In her home, Christmas decorations are up by the second week of December.

The Christmas wreath at the Martin household (image: Karen Martin)

“The Christmas tree and decoration are put up by the 15th of December, and by tradition we have George Michael’s Last Christmas playing in the background while the tree and lights are being put up. It’s a 15-year-old tradition we follow, just makes everything super Christmassy.”

While her maternal Grandmother sets up the crib,  a Jim Reeves Christmas playlist provides the musical backdrop as the remaining decorations go up.

“By tradition, we sip on our first glasses of homemade grape wine while putting up decorations. That’s our tasting session of the batch made for the year.” The family makes their own fresh Christmas wreath out of eucalyptus, Christmas greens and fresh pinecones. “The entrance has a smell of Christmas and like they say, we smell Christmas in the air,” says Martin.

Christmas Menus

For 75-year-old Crystal D’Souza a traditional Christmas means midnight mass and baking Christmas cakes. “It’s a heavy fruitcake, it does not rise much, but is tasty, and if well wrapped in cling film first, and then butter paper, it can last a couple of months. I bake and distribute this to friends and family.”

In the Martin household, Christmas menus feature a delicious selection of meats ranging from roasts, steaks, chicken and pork, as well as yellow rice and salad. Desserts include Christmas fruitcake, pudding and the famous Christmas trifle. Most traditional households serve sweets like kulkuls, rose cookies, doldol, shortbread and vanilla sponge

Christmas Eve is the most decadent yet hectic evening as the family makes short bites – cutlets, cheese and pineapple skewers, sausages, meatballs – before heading out to midnight mass.  Once mass is over, says Martin, “we wish each other and sip on wine and cut out a slice of our matured Christmas cake.”

Christmas punch with short bites is followed by Christmas breakfast with ham, bacon, salted beef, eggs, and home baked bread. At Christmas lunch, traditional yellow rice is served with bad word curry, sambal, cucumber salad, and Christmas trifle. Dinner brings toast, pepper beef steak, chicken roast with baby potatoes, vegetables, and Christmas pudding with fresh cream or custard sauce.

Soak in the Spirit

The evening ends with wine, punch, and Christmas-inspired cocktails, accompanied by dancing and jiving to Christmas music and old songs.

Christmas in India is a mix of community and culture, food and fun. It’s the time of the year that puts a smile on everyone’s faces.

Anglo-Indian Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding (image: Karen Martin)

Ingredients

  • 8 Medjool dates
  • 120 grams alcohol-soaked fruit
  • 1 cup full fat fresh cream
  • ½ cup butter milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 tbsp dark rum or French brandy
  • 2 tbsp date syrup
  • 100 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1¼ cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp orange zest
  • ¼ tsp salt

Method

  • Mince all the fruit coarsely.
  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  • In a bowl add butter and sugar. Cream the butter and sugar till the mixture is light and well combined.
  • Add the egg, fresh cream and butter milk to the sugar and butter mixture. Mix in a circular motion till the mixture is well combined. Make sure that the mixture does not split.
  • Add the Fruits, Date syrup and alcohol to the mix and fold in gently.
  • Sift in the all-purpose flour along with the salt, add in breadcrumbs and orange zest. Gently begin to fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture till well combined and there are no lumps.
  • Grease a pudding bowl or 5-inch cake tin with butter and add the mix, level the top and cover with baking paper to prevent the pudding from sticking.
  • Cover the tin with aluminum foil and tie with a twine and place into a larger oven safe square container.
  • Pour boiling water into the square container and place it in the oven at 160 degrees Celsius for one hour. Check the water level, add more boiling water if needed and place back into the oven at 180 degrees Celsius for another 40 minutes.
  • Conduct the skewer test and if the skewer comes out clean, set the pudding aside for an hour after removing the foil, de-mold and cut slices.
  • The pudding can be served with fresh cream on the side.

Crystal D’Souza’s Christmas Fruit Cake

Christmas Fruitcake by Crystal D’Souza (image: Crystal D’Souza)

Ingredients

  • 500 grams butter
  • 500 grams tea sugar
  • 250 grams plain flour
  • 250 grams semolina
  • 12 eggs, separated,
  • 200 grams cashew nuts chopped
  • 1 nutmeg, grated
  • Caramel made of 400 grams sugar
  • Half teaspoon caraway seeds
  • Half teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 200 grams golden dates
  • 200 grams black dates, deseeded
  • 200 grams mixed peel, all cut into fine bits and soaked in rum in a bottle.

Method

  • Cream butter well, (always use room temperature butter when mixing a cake) then add the sugar. Mix well.
  • Whip the eggs separately, then add to the batter in sections, along with the yolks, caraway seeds and alternately the semolina and plain flour.
  • Reserve about 150 grams of the plain flour for rolling the strained dried fruit.
  • Mix well, cover, and keep it to rise overnight.
  • Next morning, mix the batter well again.
  • Strain the soaked dried fruit in a strainer and roll in the reserved plain flour, before adding to the batter.
  • Mix well, then add the caramel, and vanilla essence.
  • Mix well again and pour batter into the prepared tin, or two tins if your oven is not large enough to bake this 2 ½ kg cake.
  • The cake is baked if a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean, with no batter sticking to it. It should also feel firm on top.
  • Remove from the oven and cool, then drizzle rum slowly over the cake. You can repeat this process again before wrapping and storing the cake.

Bindu Gopal Rao

Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer from Bangalore who likes taking the offbeat path when traveling. Birding and environment are her favorites and she documents her work on www.bindugopalrao.com.