Celebrating Christmas in India is interesting for the obvious reason that it is a predominantly Hindu country. Christians make up only about 1 percent of the population, and though we do our best to conduct the festival in traditional consumeristic style, outside of Mumbai and Goa where the Catholic influence is strong, Christmas is just another day. While one might then conclude that this should make it possible to concentrate on the true meaning of the feast, for me, the reverse is true.
With no pretty lights adorning the shopping districts, no wreath on any door but ours, no carols on the radio (there is no radio), I feel duty bound to create a Christmas spirit single handedly. With hardly a thought for the Word made flesh, I bake, decorate, and shop as if keeping the Grinch at bay is my sole responsibility. I start playing Christmas cassettes by mid-November and the tree stays up till the end of January. It’s not easy.

But India has a way of sneaking past the tinsel, the garlands, and the special Spode coffee mugs and insisting on being recognized. It is the only place I have ever lived where the Christmas story makes sense. I mean literally. And not just the Christmas story. The whole Bible could be happening right here in our town. Outside the shop where I buy groceries there are people who work all day separating the wheat from the chaff. In the main bazaar, there is a labor market where men come and stand every morning, holding their trademark tools (a paintbrush, a hammer, a shovel), hoping to be hired for the day. Now and then I have hired one of them in the afternoon and then paid the full day’s wage, feeling smug.

Just about any parable you can think of can be seen acted out here. I know several women who would turn their houses upside down in search of a lost coin. Travelers fall in with bands of thieves regularly, and a Good Samaritan is their only hope of rescue. Driving to Delhi through the farmlands of Uttar Pradesh, we look across the fields and watch the workers "bringing in the sheaves." The centurion who told Jesus he understood authority, that he himself told people to go there and they went, and that Jesus need "speak but the word" used to baffle me when I lived in democratic, egalitarian America. Now I could say those words myself.

So what is so difficult about believing in a young, newly married couple journeying to their native village and being unable to find room in the inn? Growing up in Massachusetts, I found it a bit far-fetched that they couldn’t have just gone to the next town and found a Best Western, but now I know that must have been a pretty amazing village to have an inn at all. Not to have room probably meant that all three of its rooms were full. And full no doubt meant that every available inch of floor space was already taken.

The arrival of the shepherds and the wise men would make perfect sense here, where parents still consult astrologers before deciding on a suitable marriage partner for their child. The movements of the stars, the moon, and the planets have immense importance in India, and the mysteries of the sky are seen as evidence of a Creator far beyond the scope of our understanding. Even the idea of a virgin conceiving a child would excite no special concern. A bit odd, perhaps, and probably an unnecessary complication in an otherwise straightforward story, but certainly not a stumbling block. The God who created the entire universe could surely bypass normal channels to send his Son to earth.

It is the way that people take for granted the presence of God in their lives that makes celebrating Christmas in India so right. Just about anything goes: From the virgin birth and choirs of angels to the Resurrection and Paul struck sightless by the risen Lord, the details of how God chooses to make himself manifest are simply accepted. The idea of a helpless baby, born in poverty to no one in particular, being the one to save the world is no stranger than so many other things we accept without thinking-like breathing or photosynthesis or evolution. So we accept it, pause for the birthday celebration, and get on with the harder work of living as if it were true. Which it is.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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