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Christmas nostalgia

The December chill had just set in and one fine morning Bing Crosby declared loud and clear from a neighbour’s music system that he “will be home for Christmas”.
By Jeeves! It is Christmas and Mr Crosby, for the last five decades, has been announcing his homecoming in the same baritone voice, without any hint of monotony. But in all these years Shillong and other parts of the state have evolved beyond imagination and the Christmas de rigueur has taken a fanciful turn.
The outer manifestation of the Christmas celebration has overshadowed the humbleness of the serene hill state, which was never the case “in our youth”, observes an elderly gentleman, who is visibly annoyed as he tries to swim against the tide of people at Police Bazar a week before the festival.
“When we were young Christmas was celebrated only on December 24 with songs and dances waiting for the day when Jesus was born,” says Tarsila Shadap, who is in her mid eighties, as she points at the overwhelming celebrations for days and the head-spinning shopping spree on the occasion.
The mode of celebrations has changed indeed and the transformation has been stark in rural pockets which have been influenced by rapid urbanisation over the years.
Bertina Lyngdoh, a resident of Sumer, says her grandfather would tell stories of how villagers celebrated Christmas and decorated their houses and the church with natural things. “There were no fancy lights or stars in the market back then. So the villagers would go into the nearby forest to look for birds’ nests and grass and twigs for the manger. For illumination, they used bamboo lights. Grandpa would tell these stories with utmost excitement and I too felt the vibes,” says the 28-year-old teacher.
BG Momin, an 81-year-old retired industrial officer in Tura, recalls his childhood when the young and the old would come out on the streets and participate in the traditional Songkristan dance.
“This is still practised but in a smaller scale. During my childhood, the gathering was larger and would sometimes block traffic although there were few vehicles on the streets at the time. Nowadays young people are more interested in parties and other modern indulgences and only a handful get involved in the traditional practice,” says Momin, who is originally from Resubelpara in North Garo Hills, with despair in his voice.
Songkristan processions are also common in Shillong but revellers come out in small groups and they vanish almost as fast as they appear.
For some like Tambor Lyngdoh, the change was natural with age. “When I was a boy, Christmas meant holiday, new shoes and clothes, feasts and good food. As I grew up, Christmas would mean visiting houses and singing carols. But now it is all about going to church for prayers and spending time with your family,” smiles the middle-aged man from Mawphlang.
In many parts of the state, like the areas which now comprise South West Khasi Hills district, the humble celebrations could not escape the onslaught of modernity.
In many villages in the Mawkyrwat area, people would start preparing days before Christmas. There was advance Christmas celebration and youths would greet each other with cards containing personalised messages. On December 24 midnight, services were organised in almost all churches after which youths participated in carol singing. They walked around villages singing Christmas songs. Even children were part of the processions and safety was never an issue even at midnight.
For decorations, people went to forests in search of ‘Syntiew Khrismas’ (Christmas flowers), a red flower that blooms only in the month of December and last till mid January. Decorations included only the flowers and Christmas cards and only a few would go for Christmas trees, which again were brought from the forests.
The tradition of hunting for the best baby pines in forests is still alive in some parts of Meghalaya, like Mylliem in East Khasi Hills.
The most important day of the celebration in villages in South West Khasi Hills would be “any particular day” starting from December 25. “If the youths from a particular church of one village chose December 25, others respected that and almost all from the adjoining villages would come in large numbers to witness the celebration. On that particular day, people would wear new clothes. In one area, they would not fix the date of celebration on the same day,” says a septuagenarian grocery shop owner in Mawkyrwat.
Starry starry nights
Another tradition that is almost extinct now is going to Dom Khrismas, or Christmas Hill. Youths in the Mawkyrwat area would go to the hill and form two groups — Soldiers of Light and Soldiers of Darkness. The former would sing Christmas songs and declare themselves as ‘Soldiers of Christ’ as they walked around the Dom Khrismas. The Soldiers of Darkness, on the other hand, would try to capture the territory and at the end there was a fight in which the Soldiers of Light won. A large number of people from nearby villages would gather for the drama every year.
After coming back from Dom Khrismas, revellers would organise another programme inside a makeshift hut. Villagers would come prepared for the cold night. They brought their children too. It would start with the service and prayer followed by skits and dramas, some based on the Bible and some were ‘comedies’.
It was similar in Nongpoh and its adjoining areas where grand feasts were organised by churches and households. People would paint their houses and put up lights and Christmas star from October/November and kept the spirit up till the end of January.
“But all these are gone now. Christmas celebration these days are more of a family affair. They attend church services and have special dinner with family. In fact, for some, it is the time for family get-togethers,” says the shop owner who is reluctant to give his name.
Community feasts were intrinsic to the celebrations and almost all villages would have gatherings. Forty-year-old Phedar Kharkongor of Mylliem village says for them, Christmas meant bam khana (picnic) and carols and they would be happy even without new clothes. “You tell this to kids now and they will be annoyed. They need new clothes and accessories for Christmas and the market is full of fancy dresses and costumes and sweaters,” he complains.
Sarahun Khongthaw (41) of the same village agrees saying it is “a chaos” now.
The celebrations have become more expensive now with the market flooding with an array of decorative items and lights. The otherwise dark streets of Shillong light up before Christmas. Festoons and strings of twinkling stars reflect the transformation that has taken place.
We had joy we had fun
Momin says the tradition in Resubelpara was to put up plantain stems on either side of the entrance to a house’s compound to welcome guests. There were no Christmas trees and the use of lights to decorate houses and churches “was out of question” as electricity was yet to reach the villages. Only a few households who could afford it would use gas lamps to light their houses.
On the Christmas eve, the sound of pounding of sticky rice into flour using mortar and pestle could be heard from almost every household. It was time for rice cake, or pitta, sakkin (layered rice cake) and jakkep. “This practice is vanishing and only some households follow it. Most families now buy their cakes from the market.
“Although we did not have modern facilities, we were happier as the Christmas spirit was stronger back then. In my time, Christmas meant spending time with family, relatives and friends around a glowing winter fire and awaiting the stroke of midnight to wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’,” Momin closes his eyes as he tries to recall events.
“Nowadays, youths are more interested in going out and enjoying with friends. They are out the whole night and only come home in the morning. Old people like me have nothing to do but to spend their time around a fire before finally turning in for the night,” he adds.
Talking about night-outs, Lightman Kharshiing, the owner of Mahari, has a different take. He says with time, safety has become a problem and unlike “in our time”, youngsters have to be wary of the crime around.
“Things have changed drastically. I remember going for carolling late at night when I was a child and Christmas was the most enjoyable festival for us. But now with the rise in crime, it has instilled fear in us and people are reluctant to go out and even let their children go for carolling,” he compares.
MK Sangma, a policeman who will retire next year, misses those days of traditional dance parties in different localities in Tura where youths carrying drums and other instruments would go from door to door and sing and dance forming circles and ask for small donations either in cash or rice. “Now instead of the traditional song and dance, blaring of modern Christmas music can be heard from almost all households. This creates noise pollution and nothing else,” says the 59-year-old.
Another thing that Sangma says he misses is the ‘Watchnight Service’ of the Tura Baptist Church that concluded at midnight on the Christmas eve. The service has been discontinued and it concludes much before midnight.
“The purpose of the service was to await the birth of Christ. It was appropriate when the service concluded at midnight as it offered an opportunity to meet people at the church and wish them after the service. However, as the practice has been discontinued, this is not possible anymore,” he rues.
Sangma strongly believes that instead of organising discos, stereo dances and DJ nights, the old practice of traditional song and dance should be continued to usher in the spirit of Christmas. He is also of the view that the Christmas feast at the Tura Mission Compound Playground, organised by the Tura Baptist Church, should be revived.
“During my time the Christmas feast was held at the venue and citizens from all over the town attended the same. But for the last many years, localities have decided to hold their own Christmas feasts at different venues. The feeling of togetherness is missing in today’s gatherings. The earlier practice should be revived so that people of the town can come together as one,” he adds.

Money matters

True that Christmas is all about spirituality and inner expression of faith in the saviour but no one can underestimate the value of money. “It is not everything but definitely something without which your festivals remain in the darkness despite the razzle-dazzle,” a shop owner at Police Bazar chuckles.
The truth in the statement can be perceived in the time of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. “Sales have come down. Before we used to close our shop by 10 but now by 7.30 pm the shutters are down. However, this year the sales are better than the previous year,” says Kharshiing of Mahari.
Kharkongor of Mylliem too talks about the wobbly economic conditions which have severely affected merry-making. He says the ban on mining coal and limestone has hit the rural populace most of whom are abstaining from celebrations this time. The economic bleeding has been furthered by new tax and monetary policies, he adds.
In Ri Bhoi, which has the state’s industrial belt, the celebrations had gone down but for a local youth from Nongpoh, Donald Rymbai, who is trying to revive the past glory.
Rymbai, who owns a tent house at Mawroh, has brought together youngsters and NGOs to form the Nongpoh Christmas Committee. In the beginning, a few members of the committee would contribute towards erecting Christmas arch and banners on the national highway.
This year, things look brighter and Nongpoh town wears the celebratory look with lights and banners everywhere.
Jesus, & nothing else matters
Lights and festoons, fake Christmas trees with bells and stars, new clothes and shoes, parties and loud music are only the materialistic aspect of Christmas. The ostentatious celebrations today ignore the spiritual message, feel many church leaders.
Reverend NS Phawa of KJP Assembly says Christmas means renewal of life and stronger faith and “there is not supposed to be any change”.
“Christmas is supposed to be the same from the beginning and continue to be like that. However, people’s thinking has changed. The celebration of Christmas should not end in merry-making, or in exchanging gifts… it should be deeper and spiritual,” adds the 70-year-old senior administrative secretary of the Assembly.
Many people these days perceive Christmas the wrong way and enjoy the day by means of worldly pleasures, says Lyngdoh of Mawphlang.
Father John Madur says it is the “external expression that has changed but Christmas celebrations can never change” because ‘Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever’.
~ Reporting by Olivia Lyngdoh Mawlong, Heather C Phanwar & Nabamita Mitra
in Shillong, Kynsai L Sangriang from Mawkyrwat, Chean Marak from Tura &
Pynshngainlang N Syiem from Nongpoh

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