Last December was my first Christmas while traveling in India and I was wondering whether I would find any celebrations.
Does India celebrate Christmas? Yes, there are 28 million Christians in India and plenty of celebrations, especially in places like Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry, Bandra in Mumbai, and Kolkata. Midnight mass is popular, so is eating sweets, making desserts for friends and family and dressing up in a new holiday outfit.
If you’re traveling in India, you can find some holiday fun if you’re looking for it. However, if you don’t know where to look, then you may miss out…
How Does India Celebrate Christmas?
Christianity is one of the largest religions in India, right behind Hinduism and Islam. According to the 2011 census, 2.3% of India’s more than 1 billion people are Christian.
India has such a diverse culture and they love to celebrate festivals like Holi, Diwali, Deepam and since Christmas is so popular worldwide, there are many celebrations throughout the country.
For travelers, look for local Christian churches and nice hotels that cater to international tourists to have the most noteworthy festivities.
Hotels will have special menus and decorations. They may serve turkey-like dishes, soups, and sweets.
Christian churches will start to prepare for the holiday at the end of November on Advent Sunday. There are a lot of light decorations in India on a normal day but it is even more bright and colorful during December. You can find strings of Christmas lights covering churches and lighting up homes. Many churches will have light shows.
Big lit-up stars are a common decoration. You’ll also see paper streamers and flowers. In the south of India, you can see clay lamps lit on rooftops. I saw some elephants in Kerala recently and if it was Christmas, they might decorate the elephants.
Midnight mass is how many families start off Christmas day. Most churches offer a service. There will be carol singing and some bites of sweets. Wear a Santa cap or reindeer-shaped headband if you want to set yourself apart.
Does India Have Christmas Trees?
As a kid in the US, we had fir trees growing on the back of our property. As a family, we would hike out in the snow with a saw, cut one down and drag it into the house for our Christmas tree. Then I remember spending the night decorating the tree with ornaments that we’ve saved for years and even generations. My mom would save all the terrible ornaments I made in school and we would laugh at how ugly they were.
Some families in India do have Christmas trees too! Most families in India decorate with poinsettia flowers or will decorate the trees that are native to their region like banana or mango trees. They may hang Toran’s which are strings of mango or marigold leaves over doorways. They are beautiful and smell nice too.
Although it doesn’t snow in most of India, you can find fake snow (white cotton) on some trees.
Nativity scenes are popular, or “Christmas cribs” as they are called here. You can’t just put up a standard manger and a baby Jesus and call it a day though. There are friendly competitions about who can design the most beautiful and elaborate scene. They may use grass, rocks, plants, or whatever will set them ahead of their neighbors. The only rule is that you can’t add baby Jesus to the scene until Christmas Eve 🤓
Indians often buy new clothes for holidays, since they may be seeing family for the first time in a while. Christmas is no exception. Or kids might wear colorful masks.
Schools and universities will have time off just like they might in Western countries. You might see fireworks displays – professional or just the locals shooting them off as they did in my neighborhood.
Santa Claus goes by many names in India, but typically Father Christmas is the most common name or Christmas Baba. In some places, a local will deliver gifts by horse and cart to the children.
What are the Best Foods to Eat?
The traditional Christmas dinner in India is similar to what you’d eat in the US, according to the Times of India. Turkey is the most common main course. Although I know some people eat pork dishes like durka maas or chicken curries. Butternut squash and sage roast with buttered rolls. Don’t forget my favorite: mashed sweet potatoes.
The most common dessert is fruit cake, or specifically Kerala plum cake. Not my personal favorite, but you can also find plenty of cookies and candies. Kuswar is the name for the wide assortment Christmas sweets.
It’s a tradition for people to give sweets and desserts to each other, instead of giving lots of gifts. Families will go into their neighborhood and share sweets with their friends and family, even if they’re not Christian.
Where Are the Most Fun Celebrations?
If you’re traveling in India and want an epic holiday, here are the most popular places to go (and a few hidden gems):
The Parties in Goa
About 25% of Goa is Christian and about 400,000 tourists visit the beaches each year. There is a huge carnival in Goa for Christmas that has the locals and tourists partying together. Midnight mass at the Bom Jesus Church, Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception is very popular. Go at 10 pm to get a seat before they fill up.
Goa has fireworks shows on Vagator, Calangute, Anjuna and Arambol Beaches. Old Goa has the most churches and celebrations.
Chocolate cakes are an especially popular dish here.
Last year the three-day Sunburn Festival was taking place in North Goa with sightseeing in places like Fort Agoda, Candolim Beach, Baga Beach and more.
North Goa’s Saligao Village has a lot of decorations and the beautiful Mae de Deus Church with Gothic architecture that will take your breath away, decorated with huge glowing stars.
People hang paper lanterns shaped like stars.
The Carnival in Kerala
About 18% of Kerala is Christian with over 6 million followers. During Christmas, the Cochin Carnival takes place in Fort Kochi, which culminates with the burning of a towering wooden Santa sculpture on New Year’s Eve. Although he’s not called Santa there, but Pappanji even though he looks similar.
Kerala has a history of Portuguese colony and Pappanji means grandpa in Portuguese.
Churches in Pondicherry
When I visited Pondicherry, I thought the churches were some of the most beautiful I’d seen. The Our Lady of Angels Church in the French Quarter is near the beach and holds a French-inspired Christmas service. You can listen to the choirs sing on the promenade on Christmas Eve, and there’s a market with gifts at a French school.
Park Street in Kolkata
One of the most famous streets in Kolkata is beautifully decorated and festive for Christmas. It runs through the deer park and you can find string lights, sweet cakes and restaurants serving Christmas-themed menus. There are stalls selling foods and handicrafts. Listen to the bands and choir groups sing in Allen Park and the main event is the Christmas parade down the street.
Saint Paul’s Cathedral has Gothic architecture and a popular midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It’s located near the Victoria Memorial and is open on Christmas Day until 4 pm.
Bow Barracks is a significant population of Anglo-Indians and more Christians than the rest of the city. It’s a beautiful place to wander around down the narrow lanes with red-brick buildings lining both sides. Look for the Santa hats and lights overhead, streamers, snowflakes, bells, lights and balloons.
Mumbai’s Bandra suburb and Matharpacady Village
The Bandra suburb in West Mumbai has a large population of Catholics, and if you head to Hill Road in the area you can see plenty of bakeries with Christmas sweets and light decorations. In Bandra West, there is an annual event called “Carols on Convent Road” with local residents singing at 6 pm about a week before Christmas.
Matharpacady Village is a historic and cozy area of Mumbai in the narrow streets of Mazgaon. It has some of the most beautiful homes in all of Mumbai and they are decorated colorfully for the holiday.
Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Midnight Mass
If you’re in Delhi, head to Connaught Place and join the other Christians at the midnight mass. The entire area is full of celebrations the week before Christmas as everyone prepares. You can find festival foods, decorations. lights and gifts sold by street vendors.
Off the Beaten Path Destinations: Nagaland, Meghalaya, Bangalore, Chennai
About 85% of India is Hindu, however in some provinces, you can find a majority of Christians.
|State||Total Population||% of Population that’s Christian|
|Arunachal Pradesh||1.3 million||30%|
|Andaman and Nicobar Islands||380,000||21%|
If you want to celebrate in a place with fewer tourists, then the top destinations would be:
- Kohima in Nagaland
- Shillong in Meghalaya
- Aizwal in Mizoram
What Does NOT Happen at Indian Christmas Celebrations?
The main difference in Christmas celebrations in India is that, you will NOT find many gifts being given.
When I was a kid, I remember waking up to a big sock stuffed with little toys, socks, books, and candies. Then I’d rush out into the living room to see mountains of gifts surrounding our Christmas tree. We would then spend hours going around opening gifts and stacking up the heaps of discarded wrapping paper.
In India, people will exchange homemade sweets and desserts with friends, but you won’t find many big gifts.
Is Christmas a National Holiday in India?
It’s an official holiday on the government calendar. It’s also a bank holiday and many schools, universities, and places of business will be closed.
Do Tamils Celebrate Christmas?
Many do. I live near Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu and you can find a number of celebrations. The Santhome Basilica Church is one of the best places to find a midnight mass and prayers.