Since Raji has family visiting, I had to find another place to stay while I’m in Chennai. So I’m staying as a paying guest with M, a widow who is originally from Kerala. She is also a very devout Christian. There are many pictures of Jesus in her small living room, one of which is permanently lit up with a red lamp.
She was happy to find out that I was brought up Catholic. Every morning she asks me if I want to go to church with her and I always have an excuse ready: a concert here, a lecture-demonstration there. She was also happy that she would not be alone at Christmas and I was glad to keep her company. So when she asked me if I’d go to midnight mass with her, I readily agreed.
This was the first time I would be attending church in India. I had expected a typically sombre and solemn mass but it turned out to be a very different experience, something between a fun fair and a karaoke party!
We arrived slightly before 11pm. The atmosphere was festive, with loudspeakers blasting loud, screechy music. Off to the right side of the church, a manger scene was set up and next to that, a Christmas tree. This neighbourhood church happens to be the picturesque 16th century Luz Church built by the Portuguese in 1516, one of the landmarks of Mylapore. It was decorated with garlands of colourful lights and large lamps in the shape of stars. I was surprised to see the altar set up in front of the entrance with many rows of plastic chairs lined up in the small square in front of the church. Since the church occupies a small, intimate space, this alternative arrangement was meant to accommodate the many believers who were expected to come for Christmas mass.
We sat close to the front. Very quickly the rows filled up as families arrived with their kids in tow. The women wore brightly-coloured silk saris and the children were sporting earmuffs (the papers had reported that the spell of ‘cold weather’ was going to continue, with temperatures dropping to an alarming 26 degrees Celsius, two degrees below average!)
Sometime before midnight, a man stepped up to the mike and made an announcement in Tamil. That’s when it dawned on me that the mass would be in Tamil. I was in for a long night! Meanwhile, off to the left side of the church a group of children was assembling around microphones. They launched into a loud rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by a synthesizer and drum machine. Christian or not, the whole neighbourhood was going to be subjected to some Christmas cheer. This was followed by Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: not exactly a Christmas carol I pondered, but a Christmas song nonetheless which seemed to keep up the festive atmosphere. Next came many fast-paced songs in Tamil that sounded more like film songs than carols or hymns. I have no idea whether these were Christmas songs or just popular tunes meant to keep the party going.
After the kids had sung their lungs out, things settled down a bit as mass began. Shortly after, at the stroke of midnight, the church bells rang (just as the neighbours had fallen back asleep?) as the priest carried a plaster statue of baby Jesus over to the manger scene and laid him in his makeshift crib.
Part of the mass was sung by the priest. He then launched into a long sermon – in Tamil of course. Judging by the laughter coming from the congregation, I was clearly missing out on all the jokes. The rest of the mass was more familiar with the usual sitting, standing, kneeling and genuflecting. When it came time to say “Peace be with you”, people put their hands together in a polite namasté and nodded to their neighbours instead of offering a handshake. It took some time to distribute communion to the large crowd. It was 2am by the time the mass ended. It concluded with one last number from the child choir: Happy Birthday! The whole crowd joined in to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. Then a huge cake was carried outside, cut and distributed. Such a conclusion to Christmas mass was unusual for me, but I finally understood the party atmosphere: it was a birthday party after all!