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 03:39pm

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 images.web@dawn.com