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Christmas Amongst Indo-Caribbean Canadians
An Immigrant Story

by Roop Misir, PhD
Guyana Journal, December 2009

Indo-Caribbean people love celebrating life events. Christmas is no exception.

Some one hundred and seventy years ago, our ancestors left the shores of India for British Guiana and islands of the Caribbean. They were taken as early immigrants in sailing ships to settle in distant lands thousands of miles away. The voyage across the Indian and Atlantic oceans would take many months. While at sea, they developed lasting bonds of love and friendship that in due course would transcend class, caste and creed-not uncommon in Indian society.

Religions and Early Pioneers

For the most part, our ancestors practiced Hinduism and an earlier form of Islam. In their new countries, they were a minority group. Plantation owners/ bosses never took their workers' belief and culture seriously, but dismissed these as “pagan” (non-Christian) and those of the devil. Only Christianity and European culture were recognized and hence promoted in the school system.

Since Indians replaced African slaves and other immigrants in the sugar plantations, many people (including ex-slaves) considered them as inferior. Indeed, weren't they taken as chattels from a conquered, fractured India and shipped to the Caribbean and other colonies to do the jobs, which even ex-slaves refused to do?

Since the heydays of European expansionism in the 18th century, Europeans considered it the “white man's burden” to civilize their subjects - Black slaves, aboriginal peoples, and Chinese, and later Indian “coolies”. These must be shown the Way of Christianity - the sole passport to Heaven. Yes, our uncivilized and heathen ancestors must be converted to Christianity! Employed strategies were also meant to transform them into docile workers whose job was to produce sugar and other agricultural products for export to Europe. The military machine kept the workers' muscles in check while the Good Book took care of the mind.

As the army of proselytizers soon realized, it was next to impossible to bring Christian enlightenment to these particular dark-complexioned pagans. Sadly, Europeans seemingly with a superior culture made no attempt to even understand the cultural practices or celebrations of their Indian indentured subjects. To the sugar planters, immigrant languages (Hindi, Urdu, Tamil) were considered unintelligible sounds, and their religious practices those of some exotic cult. In due course, they were left alone so long as they proved to be good workers and faithful servants. A new religion (capitalism and profit) was emerging. Against overwhelming odds, traditional Indian culture has survived and thrived in Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, albeit in a greatly modified form.

Early Imperial Christmas

The immigrants had to toil in the plantations under the terms of their contracts. However, lured by the prospects of promotion and special privileges, a few did convert to Christianity. But the majority refused to submit, choosing to retain religion and culture. Later, some did return to India, but most stayed on. Many became independent farmers; others moved on to business and the professions.

The mental toll of servitude did have a negative impact on our fore-parents. For example, English replaced our traditional languages perhaps forever - unless these are revived by the younger generation. Many of us unwittingly evince symptoms of inferiority complex, especially when dealing with light-skinned people. Some may argue that this induced docility is a survival trait, enabling people to adapt to new life situations - like celebrating Christmas and other non-traditional events.

Christmas and Santa

In the early days, workers were given part of the day off. Indians merely took note of what neighbors and former slaves did. Some would buy new clothes, and partake in special items like black cakes and non-alcoholic ginger beer. Gradually, vegetarian Hindus would try non-vegetarian foods such as chicken or mutton curry. As usual, men would drink themselves senseless at rum shops that dotted (and still do) the village landscape. A new celebration of sorts was emerging - one without Christ.

Today people in Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and elsewhere celebrate a festive season. Few of us Hindus are strict vegetarians these days. So when we celebrate Christmas, we want to have fun and good cheer. Like our early ancestors, we visit friends and relatives, exchange presents and pleasantries. As always, Christmas is also a time when the kids look forward for lots of real presents from a make-believe Santa Claus.

Christ and Krishna

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the Son of God. In many ways, this is consistent with the Hindu belief of Krishna as a manifestation of Vishnu, the Lord of the Universe.

Thus, the celebration of a festive Christmas may offer yet another opportunity to promote the brother/sisterhood of humanity. Lord Jesus is associated with compassion and love for the poor. Likewise Lord Krishna revealed through His devotee Arjuna (as recorded in the Bhagavad Gita) that “He that looks at another human with love and affection, this devotee is dear to me.”

So why don't people recognize the common teachings of these two belief systems and work together to promote interfaith harmony?

Krishna, Christ and Mithra

Thousands of years BC, Krishna was born in a jail. The birth dates of both Jesus (and a much earlier Mithra, the Persian God of Light and Justice) are December 25. Whereas Jesus who was born in a manger, Mithra was delivered in a cave. Shepherds bearing gifts attended the births of both these Christ and Mithra.

Is this pure coincidence, or the magic of Christmas that December 25th is such an important day in both the Western and the pagan calendars? With claims of many 'great' religions being the only way to heaven or the after-life, is it any wonder that many of us people prefer to keep God out of Christmas?

One God, Many Paths?

According to traditional Hindu belief, there are many pathways leading to the same Supreme God. The oft-quoted analogy is that rivers take numerous courses as they meander their way to the sea, all of which ultimately reach the vast ocean. Apparently, non-Indic faiths don't subscribe to this notion of one God, many forms. Rather, they tend to consider Hinduism and God's many manifestations as polytheistic and barbaric. Their religion apparently offers the ONLY TRUE WAY! So what is God? A human embodiment of only what's good, or a mere concept? And why is God always portrayed as male?

In this modern age of globalization, migration and the confluence of cultures, established religion is becoming less relevant as people understand what makes how things happen, and how they work. Thus, claims of superiority of any religion may be much hype, and little substance, bordering on arrogance and /or ignorance.

Multicultural Appeal

To the Christian faithful, Jesus may be the reason for the season. But Christmas does have a special appeal for non-Christians. For example, Jesus (Isa in Arabic) is also a Muslim prophet, not than the Son of God, or God incarnate. For Hindus, Jesus is a divine soul.

In multicultural Canada, Christmas is now a mainstream event celebrated by all except those who consciously choose otherwise. As the major annual gift-giving event, it may be the best time to buy a present for that special someone. Besides, shopping till you drop creates jobs, boosts profits and keeps the economy in overdrive. In economic terms, Christmas can be a real recession fighter.

Caribbean Indians are not religious fanatics, nor are they bigots. To many, a person's religion is his/her personal choice. Over the centuries, our ancestors have lived harmoniously with all. It is the respect and tolerance for others' beliefs that motivate them to celebrate Christmas

Once again, we join other immigrants and mainstream Canadians to celebrate a secular Christmas. As we say in the Caribbean: Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to All!

Dr. Roop Misir is an Indo-Guyanese Canadian Educator. He currently lives in Toronto. Readers can contact him.