In South India, Christmas is a national holiday. Schools close and public activities slow down. Besides the universal message of peace that is conveyed by Christmas, I was always amazed at the capacity of Indian culture to absorb and transform whatever came to her over the centuries. Fluidity combined with the ability to assimilate, allowed the mixing of ideas and cultural synthesis. Although kolam is a Hindu ritual, we find them in Christian homes and churches as well. Christians from Chennai celebrate midnight mass at St. Thomas cathedral in Mylapore. There is a belief that after spending 10 years on the Malabar coast, Thomas the apostle travelled East and arrived in Mylapore (Chennai) around AD 68. Facing the sea, it is said that the basilica was built over the apostle's remains. In a way, I rediscovered Christianity here in India and was surprised to find in Tamil homes, images of Jesus or Buddha along with Hindu gods. Some Hindus consider them as avatar or incarnations descended on Earth to free the world from evil. It is in this fabulous melting of cultures, religions and beliefs that the Christmas kolam has integrated religious symbols as well as Western clichéd images.
Christmas with Pushpavalli, Suguna and Swarna
During the Christmas season, walking around the streets of many Tamil cities or villages, one may find here and there Christmas theme kolam and rangoli. Pushpavalli narrates how her mom is a Christian and her father a Hindu: "Christmas celebration has always been part of our festivities. I am fond of nativity scenes and their characters therefore, no matter what, I draw them in my colourful rangoli."
"I always enjoy doing freehand rangoli related to special events or festivals. This year my Christmas floor paintings are dedicated to my grandchildren who live and celebrate Christmas in the UK and USA." This is what Suguna shared with me when she sent her pictures.
Swarna loves drawing kolam for festivals including Christmas. " I would visit my Christian friend during this period just to enjoy the decoration of her tree".
Christmas with Gomathi, Chandra and Sandhiya
"As I studied and worked in a Christian institution, it always seemed natural to wish my friends a Merry Christmas with a suitable kolam": says Gomathi. Chandra also studied in a missionary school: "As school kids we were eagerly waiting for Christmas. Decorations gave a festive look to our school while we staged plays, sang Christmas carols and waited for Santa Claus and his distribution of sweets. I still have close ties with Christian families with whom we exchange sweets and cakes for Diwali and Christmas."
Santa Claus knows no borders, no caste, no faith and speaks Tamil too.