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Is Christmas all about cakes and wine? No! Here’s how a typical, south Indian Christmas is celebrated, plus an Indian Christmas recipe!
The weather is getting colder here in Dubai and it is time to pull out the warm clothing and shawls from deep inside our cupboards. Listening to the Christmas carols playing on my iPod, I wrap my fingers around the warm mug of cocoa this crisp December morning, and look at the Christmas tree silently glittering in the corner – I am gently reminded of the Christmases of my childhood, back home in Chennai.
Often, people think that we Christians in India celebrate Christmas in a completely Western fashion. Yes this is certainly true for a few Christian communities, but most of us celebrate a somewhat fusion Christmas; one which incorporates the typical Christmas symbols of the West but also infuses a unique Indian essence into it, closer to the spirit of Diwali, I must say.
Sure, we strung up twinkling lights, put up the Christmas tree, and decorated the house with sparkly tinsel in the traditional Christmas colours of red and green. However, while the warm scents of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg are the trademarks of the holiday season in the West, growing up, my home was always filled with the tantalizing aromas of besan being roasted for the moti laddoos, ghee being melted for halwas and cardamom being powdered for the rava laddoos.
My mother would take a couple of weeks off from work and spend the days leading up to Christmas whipping up various Indian sweets and savouries. The sound of crunchy murukkus sizzling in hot oil and the sight of my dear mother bending over a batch, keeping a keen eye on them to make sure that they do not turn even a slight shade darker than the perfect golden brown, are fond memories that I shall cherish forever.
My winter holidays were mostly spent lounging around in bed with a book or in idle day dreaming, frequently interspersed with stealthy trips to the kitchen to surreptitiously sneak away a delicacy or two and some long-faced grumbling if my poor mother ever asked me to help her out with a dish.
As a child, I looked forward to dressing up in bright pattu pavadais and going for the midnight Christmas service in Church. An oft repeated activity of mine was twirling round and round and then suddenly sitting down, so that the pavadai flared out beneath me, making me feel like a little princess in a silk ball gown! My favourite one was an ensemble in mango yellow and deep red. I never used to fall asleep in the midst of Christmas service, because even if the pastor delivered an uninspiring sermon, there were always so many well-dressed ladies around and one could spend hours together staring at the plethora of new clothes and fine jewellery! Blasphemous, perhaps, but the truth nevertheless!
Once the service got over, we went back home and cut a rich Christmas cake – or “plum cake” as it is quaintly referred to in India despite not having any plums in it – and feasted on it.
As Christmas day dawned, I always woke up to the mouth-watering smell of mutton curry simmering away. Christmas day breakfast typically consisted of soft, spongy idlis served with generous helpings of spicy mutton curry, along with crispy vadas dotted with caramelized onion, cumin and pepper, and creamy kesari, studded with plump raisins and roasted cashews.
One major difference to Diwali though was that we did not spend the entire day in front of the television watching “special” programs, largely because, back in those days Doordarshan always telecasted rather boring and clichéd Christmas programs. Instead, the day usually flew by wishing friends and family and visiting neighbours to drop off the platters of homemade goodies. This was followed by a scrumptious family lunch of tasty biryani with all the associated frills, and of course some delicious payasam to wrap it all up. Once we got over our food induced coma, all the kids gathered together to burst crackers and light fireworks, which we had been hoarding since Diwali! As night set in and the smoke filled air cleared a bit, I was always a bit sad that Christmas was over – but there was always next year to look forward to!
One of the most popular Indian Christmas recipes in my mother’s repertoire is her recipe for rava laddoos. I always harass her to make it for me and thus far, I haven’t tasted a better version! Soft, cardamom scented, delicate balls of roasted and powdered rava, with hidden surprises of sticky raisins or crunchy cashews, all held together with copious amounts of ghee – these delightful laddoos will simply melt in your mouth!
Ingredients (makes 30):
Semolina – ½ kg
Sugar – ½ kg
Ghee – 250 grams
Cashews & raisins – 50 grams
Cardamom – 5 pods
Roast rava on a slow – medium flame until the raw smell goes off and the rava turns a pale golden brown colour.
Let it cool down. Meanwhile, powder the sugar and roughly grind the cardamom pods.
Once the rava has cooled down, powder it and mix with the sugar.
Heat a couple of teaspoons of ghee and fry the cashew nuts and raisins. Add that to the rava and sugar mixture along with the cardamom.
Heat the remaining ghee and add to the remaining ingredients.
Start making the laddoos. You need to make them when the ghee is warm or they won’t hold their shape. You can also apply a few drops of ghee to your palms to make the process easier.
Once the laddoos have been made, let them cool down before storing in air-tight containers. They stay good for a about a week or so.
*Photo credits: (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
Top festive image via Shutterstock
Murukku: Sanath Kumar
Paavadai: S Jagadish
Laddoos: Vinay Bavdekar
Anne John plays with words for a living and would probably do the same even
Loved this piece. Reminds me so much of most of the festivals I grew up with. I used to love the plum cakes available at our local bakery that time of the year. Merry Christmas Anne!
Thank you so much Lakshmi!
I always wondered whether all Indian Christians celebrate Christmas the typical western way or not! loved reading this post
Loved reading your post Anne. Hope you had a fun and food filled Christmas even away from home 🙂
Awaiting More such articles talking about festivities followed by different communities of India.
I too make rava laddoos but since I grind the rava after roasting it the laddoos tend to stick to the palate. Must try making laddoos without grinding the rava. Thank you for the tip and do give your mother due credit.
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