Christmas converts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am

In the battle over westernisation, the traditionalists are losing ground. Nothing illustrates their retreat more powerfully than the celebration of western festivals such as Valentine's Day, mother's and father's days, and Christmas in this predominantly Hindu country.

Every Valentine's Day, they've been tearing their hair out in frustration over card and gift shops in the capital and elsewhere displaying special products, and hotels and restaurants offering deals, for smitten couples.

For conservatives determined to preserve the 'purity' of Indian culture, even celebrating birthdays is alien, an un-Indian import from the west that has no roots in the country.

'Blowing out candles and cutting cakes is something no one used to do when I was growing up,' says Vikram Ghosh, 56, a maths teacher in the Okhla suburb of Delhi who believes Indian culture is being diluted by western influences. 'It's a western import and nothing to do with India.' Mr Ghosh and his ilk are even more horrified at the increasing popularity of Christmas.

Until a few years ago, apart from the tiny Christian community in New Delhi, the capital was utterly un-festive on December 25. An alien descending from space would have thought it was just another ordinary day. But this year, shops in Khan Market, a popular shopping centre, started selling Christmas trees and decorations in the middle of November. Other markets, too, were bursting with baubles and gifts (nearly all made in China).

'Lots of non-Christians came in to buy Christmas trees,' said Atul Aggarwal, who did big business at his Khan Market shop this year. 'They wanted their house to look festive, mainly for the sake of the children.'

For people who are not diehard traditionalists, the popularity of Christmas - along with Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist festivals - is merely another demonstration of India's openness to outside influences. The hotels have been equally enthusiastic, offering special Christmas dinners, lunches, brunches and teas and laying on Santas and carol singers in their lobbies. The lawns of embassies that held Christmas fairs were overflowing.

'My son has picked up so much about Christmas from television that he wanted a special party for his friends,' said textile designer Aradhana Gupta, a Hindu. 'But even my husband and I are being invited to Christmas parties.'

At traffic lights, instead of selling peanuts or magazines, roadside hawkers sold Santa caps and Christmas stars. It did not even seem incongruous any more.

But some touches are still missing. There is no mistletoe and, for some strange reason, no crackers. No one seems to make them. And the mince pies could be better.