Photo: AFP/File

How I celebrate Christmas in Lahore

My memories of childhood Christmases are very different from the way they are celebrated in Karachi.
Updated 21 Mar, 2022

My name is Naeem Sahoutara. I am a journalist by profession and a Christian by faith. I have been based in Karachi, the country’s largest cosmopolitan city, since 2006, when I moved here from Lahore.

Karachi is home to mainly two types of Christians — Goans and Punjabis. Since my childhood, I have been celebrating Christmas in a very simple way like the rest of the Punjab, where most of the country’s Christians live. I go back to Lahore every Christmas to spend it with my family.

Every year, when I go to the train station in Karachi to book my ticket to Lahore, I note that the railways booking office has no special arrangements or counter for Christians going home for Christmas. For Eid there are always special trains operated to accommodate people going home for the holiday.

Postcards and shopping

When I was young, we lived in a small rented house in the Raj Garh neighbourhood of Lahore. The whole year, we six siblings would wait for the winter season because it has so much more to offer than cold winds.

With the start of the last calendar month of December, the countdown would begin. We would start buying Christmas postcards to send to our cousins living in different cities of Punjab. I would also give postcards to my Muslim friends on Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha. On Christmas, they would give me postcards. This exchange would take place by hand, since either were my next door neighbours or classmates.

Our Christmas tree
Our Christmas tree

My father would send Christmas postcards to his former bosses — the counsel generals of the American consulate who had gone back to Washington DC after serving their terms in Lahore.

We would also start asking our parents to buy us new clothes and shoes, like any other Christian children.

My mother and three sisters would buy colourful clothes and shoes, mostly in matching colours. My father would get new clothes (mostly shalwar kameez) for himself and for us three brothers.

And then began our wait for Chaubees Ki Raat (Christmas Eve) — a night filled with fun, activities and excitement.

Last minute shopping consumed most of our day and once evening set in, the indoor activities would begin.

In Punjab, Christians have a different way of celebrating Christmas. While the shopping spree is a common feature all over the world, what makes this religious event different in different parts of the world is the local traditions.

Chaubees Ki Raat and gajrela

The most fun thing about Chaubees Ki Raat is cooking a special food — gajrela (a carrot, rice and milk pudding)!

After doing household chores, mothers sit in the kitchen at midnight to cook gajrela. My mother would make it in a big pot over our kerosene oil stove.

One by one, she would include the ingredients — crushed carrots, some rice and lots of milk. Then she would keep the big cooking spoon moving in the pot so that the food inside didn't burn the bottom of the pot.

My siblings and I would sit in a circle around the stove to keep ourselves warm. My sisters would talk and apply mehndi to their hands while us brothers had the task of preparing the dry fruit — mainly coconut, peanuts and mewa (raisins). Almonds and pistachios were a rare luxury.

It takes hours to cook the gajrela but for us and most other Christian families in Punjab, this is traditional Christmas food.

After offering our night prayers, we would once again gather around the stove to taste the freshly cooked gajrela. Though gajrela is served cold, we could never wait till morning for the first taste. Our excuse would often be that we were checking how it tasted.

Gajjar ka halwa cooking on the stove
Gajjar ka halwa cooking on the stove

After that, we would go to sleep. Or pass a sleepless night waiting for Christmas day to begin with all the festivities while the pot of gajrela spent the night under the open sky to cool. We, like many of the lower middle class, could not afford a fridge or deep-freezer in which it could cool down.

The next morning we woke up early in the day to go to church and sing prayers. Our father would spend a busy day at the American Consulate in Lahore, where the consul general would arrange their traditional Christmas party for the mission’s foreign and local staff as well as dignitaries.

By midnight, our father would join us and the second round of fun would begin. He would bring colourful buntings, chocolates, traditional rich plum cake and some toys gifted by the American consul general to the staff serving at his residence. The western elements would add to our local celebrations.

Many families would get a VCR with four Pakistani (mostly Punjabi) and Bollywood films — it would make for a full-night package. A full movie night on Dec 24.

After the freezing cold and foggy night, the gajrela was finally frozen and ready to be served!

The whole family would have a breakfast of cold gajrela and a hot cup of milk tea and then hurry to go to church in a tonga hired for us to travel to and from church.

Christmas Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral — Photo: AFP
Christmas Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral — Photo: AFP

On thick foggy mornings, the family would offer prayers, sing hymns and psalms and listen to special sermons at the Sacred Heart Cathedral at Regal Chowk. It's better known as Regal Church.

At every church, there would be a festival or mela organised where the children would enjoy food and drinks — the Pepsi and burgers we had that day was a luxury for many.

When we returned home, we would have our second round of gajrela. Then, some cousins would visit us and the Christmas feast would be prepared. Unlike the western tradition of cooking turkey, we could only afford chicken or mutton.

Iqbal Park picnic

Sometimes, we visited our relatives either in Lahore or other cities. Our maternal uncles and aunts lived in Sheikhupura while our father's side lived in Gujranwala, Jogi Wala village or Farooqabad. The guests who visited us always gave us 'Eidi'. We would also get Eidi when visiting other families.

My family at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore during a Christmas picnic
My family at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore during a Christmas picnic

But, most of the time our relatives living in Lahore would arrange a picnic. So, all of us would go to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in our childhood.

The March 2016 suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park that killed around 72 people and wounded some 300 visitors on Easter Day gave me flashbacks to my childhood picnics at the park.

We congregated at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park several times for picnics on Easter or Christmas. One of the city’s largest public parks, it used to offer recreational opportunities for many Muslims and Christians to spend their days together.

My family at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore during a Christmas picnic
My family at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore during a Christmas picnic

My parents at the park
My parents at the park

This year, I miss my father and eldest sister Najma who have both left us too soon.

My mother cooks the gajrela as her grandchildren sit around her
My mother cooks the gajrela as her grandchildren sit around her

Now, as my mother cooks the gajrela, her grandchildren are the ones to encircle her around the gas stove — provided, of course, that the gas supply is not cut short.

Goans' Western-style celebrations

While in Karachi, I came to know of another Christian community known as the Goans. They arrived from the southern Indian state of Goa, which was the last colony of the Indian subcontinent.

India’s southern coastline stretches along the Arabian Sea and is famous for its beautiful beaches. Goa was freed from Portuguese rule in 1961, more than four centuries after it was colonised. But liberation didn't change Goa's and Goans' Portuguese customs.

In Karachi’s downtown Saddar, Goan women roam marketplaces with short hair and skirts while the men wear plate-less pants, gallus and golf caps.

The Goans also have a very different way of celebrating Christmas and Easter than I do. Their traditions are far more Western — they decorate their doors with wreaths, feature recreation of nativity scenes in their homes and decorate their trees with lights, buntings, stockings, Santa Claus and reindeers.

In Goan neighbourhoods, Christmas carols are a very lively activity and young children go door to door in groups, singing hymns and psalms and collect alms for the decoration of the cathedral. On the night before Christmas, they hold community gatherings where they cherish traditional food.

My friend Basil Andrews says his community entertains has certain foods they like eating on Christmas — those include milk toffees, kulkuls and rich plum cake known as ‘Christmas cake’ all over the world.

At midnight, they gather at the beautiful 18th century St Patrick’s Cathedral. They also have a traditional meal they cook on Christmas Day called sorpotel (beef cooked with red chilies) that was to be served with rice cake (sanna) in his childhood.

All photos by the author unless stated otherwise

This story is part of a series on celebrations of holidays of religious minorities in Pakistan. If you would like to share your story, write to us on


Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Dec 25, 2021 03:58pm
Merry Christmas of 2021, Season's Greetings and a happy and prosperous New Gregorian Year of 2022 to everybody. As always, keep it up and hang on tough.
Tanvir Khan Dec 25, 2021 03:59pm
I thank from the depth of heart All the Christians of Pakistan, especially all those associated with Cathedral High School, Lahore, and St. Patrick's College, Karachi. They infused in me the most meaningful message of Jesus: LOVE YOUR NEXT ONE AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF!
bhaRAT© Dec 25, 2021 04:15pm
Merry Xmas.
MG Dec 25, 2021 04:18pm
Merry Christmas. Looks like enjoying Christmas picnic in park is a thing of past
Henchi Dec 25, 2021 04:41pm
Beautiful write up. Hope your father's boss would send you'll to follow him.
Syed Irfan Dec 25, 2021 06:05pm
A very interesting read on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to all readers who are celebrating.
Truth be told Dec 25, 2021 06:08pm
The account poked sarcasm at the living conditions author faced with every possible opportunity. He has been blessed to celebrate his religious occasion with more fervour than we Muslims celebrate Eid in foreign nations in the West. He should be thankful and blessed that with such a minor number, religious freedom and places of worship are abundant, unlike the stares that we receive
Ga Dec 25, 2021 06:35pm
Interesting write up. That Sorpotel Goan dish should be sold in restaurants. Or is there a mainstream name for it
Ali Mehdi Dec 25, 2021 06:57pm
Christmas in Saddar is full of fun. Even Navrouz in saddar is celebrated not just by parsis but also by other minorities. This is how they share their happiness with each other.
Jaffar Hassan Naqvi Dec 25, 2021 07:17pm
Great narration of the customised Pakistan style Christmas celebrations. Merry Christmas
Ahmed Dec 25, 2021 08:23pm
Merry Christmas to all.
Chrís Dăn Dec 25, 2021 09:10pm
I too am from Lahore . After reading this article,I am missing my childhood Christmas in Lahore .Thank you.
Chrís Dăn Dec 25, 2021 09:12pm
@Truth be told All Western countries have complete freedom and Muslims celebrate their festivals-Hindus celebrate their Diwali and Jews celebrate their feasts.
Jo Dec 25, 2021 10:06pm
Brilliant article Naeem Sahoutara. Thank you for sharing lovely memories. Have a blessed Christmas and a happy new year.
Rehana Bounse Dec 25, 2021 11:54pm
@Truth be told no that’s not true. We celebrate our religious holidays such as Ramadan & Eids & other festivities here in the United States with all the freedom. Americans overall are very understanding people & we have never had any problems so far. Even when 9/11 happened our neighbors, friends & acquaintances were very concerned about us & even offered their homes for us if need be. Regarding Pakistani Christians they have the right to have a peaceful & joyous celebration as they are citizens of the country like the rest of the population.
DS Dec 26, 2021 12:37am
Thank you, I enjoyed reading about the local Christmas celebrations in the Panjab. May all Christians be safe everywhere in Pakistan.
GreenAura Dec 26, 2021 02:57am
Wonderful piece!
Asma Ali Dec 26, 2021 05:56am
Very interesting article, thanks for sharing your childhood memories of the celebrations. Merry Christmas to you and all those celebrating. May the new year bring happiness and health worldwide.
Polaris Dec 26, 2021 07:47am
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for the Christian community all over Pakistan.
Mumtaz Ahmed Shah Dec 26, 2021 09:04am
Merry christmas and a marvelous write-up.(Texas)
RKG Dec 26, 2021 09:20am
I am a Hindu but believe me we as kids had similar customs, anxiety and celebration during some of our festivals. I am sure kids and grown ups in all religions all over the world must be having similar fond memories of their festival. Thanks for writing this and bringing back those nostalgic memories.
Dollarman Dec 26, 2021 11:41am
Very nice pics! May there be peace for all!
M. Emad Dec 26, 2021 05:18pm
Fear in their eyes.
PakPig Dec 26, 2021 05:36pm
@bhaRAT© Merry Christmas.
Shoaib Dec 26, 2021 07:20pm
This is lot better
No-nonsense Dec 26, 2021 07:57pm
Happy Christmas to all Christians
Ismail Dec 26, 2021 11:09pm
Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating wherever they are and particularly to those who lives in Pakistan
Ather Dec 27, 2021 02:44am
Excellent article. Thank you for sharing your memories with us on this auspicious occasion of Christmas. Happy New Year.
Baloch Dec 27, 2021 06:36am
Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing Naeem Sahoutra sahab.
TPA Dec 27, 2021 06:56am
Are there any Christians left in pakistan?
Irfan Dec 27, 2021 06:56am
What a lovely article! It reminded me of Eid celebrations in Lahore. Merry Christmas to all our brethren.