Christmas in Tea Estates of North Bengal
A beautiful place to be in during Christmas
The Dooars and Terai region of North Bengal is one of the most beautiful places to visit for anyone. Evergreen tea gardens, rain forests with tall trees, perennial rivers flowing out of the Himalaya mountains, blue hills in the north and green paddy fields in the south are soothing not only to the eyes of the visitor but also to his heart and mind. The more famous tourist destinations of Darjeeling and Sikkim are its next door neighbors. What makes it yet more beautiful is its tribal population which migrated to these regions about a hundred years ago from the Chhotanagpur Plateau of central eastern India. Many of them were Christians and they kept up the practice of their faith in their new settlements against all odds. Their spiritual needs were taken care of by visiting missionaries from Kishnanagar, near Kolkata. Later, PIME fathers of Milan (Italy) were able to establish mission centers in the district of Jalpaiguri.
The Catholic Diocese of Jalpaiguri was created in 1952 with the Most Reverend Ambrose Galbiati as its first bishop. The zealous missionary bishop visited every nook and corner of his diocese and strengthened the faith of his flock. At present, there are no PIME missionaries here and the care of the diocese has been taken over by an indigenous clergy. Today, there are more than thirty parishes and mission centers and the Christian population has grown considerably. The simple hearted tribal Christians celebrate Christmas in their own way and receive the graces of the Christ’s incarnation very much like the shepherds of the Holy Bible. I had the happy privilege of living with them for many years and they were the best time of my life.
The Advent - a time of preparation
With the arrival of December, the happy mood of Christmas sets in. Young boys and girls begin to practice songs and hymns .Parishes and mission centers begin to plan how they could be decorated and how the Holy Mass could be celebrated in a more meaningful way. The four weeks of the holy Advent is a time of preparation, more importantly spiritual but also material, for the birthday celebrations of the Messiah.
The Solemn High Mass
By Christmas Eve every Christian home is decorated and every parish or village church wears a new look to welcome the new born Savior. Every family is ready with articles to prepare a special dinner on the happy day.The solemn High Mass is celebrated at midnight and in the morning. All faithful attend the Holy Mass braving the cold wind blowing down from the mountains. The choir sings and unites its joyful strains with those of the angels of heaven. The typically tribal tunes and beats compel all to sway with the rhythm and tap their feet. The lyrics depicting the night of the Savior’s birth lift everyone’s mind to the joyful height of the holy night. Here is two examples of the carols sung during the Holy Mass:
- Mariam ker kora me ka tara tim tim chamkela
- Tara na lage Prabhu Yesu chamkela.
- Yahuda desh ker Baitulam gaon me
- Tara na lage Prabhu yesu Chamkela. (What is that star which is shining in Mary’s lap? It is not a star. It is the Lord Jesus who is shining in Mary’s lap. In the country of Judea, in the village of Bethlehem, it’s the Lord Jesus who is shining like a star.)
- Charani mey sutai delaen Mariam
- Apan dular beta Yesu ke
- Charani me sutai delaen Mariam. (Mary laid her dear child in a manger Her dear child Jesus She laid her dear child in a manger)
- The incidents related with the Lord’s birth are musically commemorated in the Christmas songs. Joseph and Mary, the angels, the Magi, the star, the manger, the shepherds, the lambs all are fondly recalled in the songs.
The community dance
After the Holy Mass the community dance starts. The air resounds with singing and drumbeats. The thunderous beats of “Nagada” (a percussion musical instrument producing loud bass sound) compel everyone’s feet to dance. The girls join hands and form a chain and move with the rhythm. The boys gyrate in the middle of the circle replying to the girls’ singing. The tribal boys and girls are extremely energetic. They can go on dancing for hours at a stretch.
The Christmas dinner
The Christmas dinner is prepared in every home. The food is very simple. Every family prepares cakes which are made of rice flour or wheat flour. They are in fact cookies deep fried in some vegetable oil. The cake so famously associated with Christmas is not seen in the poor tea gardens families. Meat is an essential part of the Christmas dinner. The adults drink a brew called “handi” (in Sadri , the lingua franca among the tribals) which is a beer made from rice. This rice beer, which is known as “jhara” in Oraon and “bodek” in Mundari, contains enough alcohol to send anyone swinging like a twig in breeze.
Carol singing of a different kind
There is no carol singing like the ones we see in the cities but boys and girls visit every Christian home and present one round of dance. Every family gives homemade cookies or some money to the dance party. The dance party comes back to the churchyard and has a tea party with the cookies and hot tea served generously. This kind of dancing visits may continue for two or three days depending on the numbers of homes in the tea estate. So, the celebration may well spill on to the New Year which is a special day of thanksgiving for all Christians.
Santa Claus doesn’t come here
Santa Claus, a well known figure in other parts of the world during Christmas is a foreign entity to tribal children. Christmas tree is not found anywhere too. Gifts and card exchanges are few. In spite of these missing elements, I found the celebration of the Savior’s birth very meaningful among the tribal Christians of the Dooars and Terai. The families invite each other to share in a “love meal” or send cookies to each other as gifts. Each child gets a new dress to wear on this day.
A pleasant weather
The weather is perfect to visit the tea estates in the festive season. The sky remains clear and the sun shines brightly in the sky. The temperature may drop down to 7 to 10 degree Celcius at night but the days may record 10 to 15 degree Celcius. The visitors may stay at hotels and lodges. But if you can arrange your stay in a parish, it would be the best possible option. The comforts may not be the best in a parish but you could have a ringside view of the celebrations. You may have an enchanting view of the Kanchenjunga snow peak (third highest in the world) from Jalpaiguri. You may also combine your stay, if you wish, with visits to the many wild life sanctuaries in this region.
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