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Can't stop Christmas from coming: when a family death put the holiday celebration on hold, one woman still experienced the joy of Jesus' birth.

Here in India, where I have lived for the past 23 years, people know how to make space for death. The old traditional Christian custom of spending two days on the wake and one for the funeral--though actually practiced by very few in the United States these days--seems but a glancing nod when compared to Indian observances.

For the bereaved family here, life simply comes to a halt for a minimum of 13 days. In the hours immediately following the death, all activity concerns the preparation of the body and the funeral arrangements. There are no undertakers in India. Female relatives bathe and anoint a woman's body; men do the same for a man. There are no coffins: a simple stretcher of bamboo and rope is constructed on the spot and the men of the family carry it to the cremation grounds on their shoulders.

Because of India's climate and the lack of embalming or storage facilities, the funeral occurs either on the day of the death itself or the next, at the absolute latest. Relatives must therefore spend hours in a frenzy of phone calls or trips to peoples' homes to give them the news in time for them to make it to the ceremonies.

For the first four days the family does not cook any food in the house and neighbors are expected to provide each meal in quantities vast enough to feed the scores of friends and relatives who will come from far and wide to offer their condolences, meaning that life stops in the neighbors' homes as well. People take the day off to rush to the market to buy enough provisions to be able to cook the required amounts. Because most houses are not large enough to accommodate all those who wish to pay their respects, furniture is removed from the living room and mats are laid on the floor for people to sit on. Mattresses and linens are borrowed from friends for the makeshift sleeping arrangements that must be provided, and neighbors offer the use of their homes for showers in the morning as water is always in short supply.

Different families follow different rituals for the 13-day mourning period, but in most the family remains in the home throughout, emerging only for urgent matters. A prayer service is held every evening, which all relatives and close friends attend. The 13th day signifies the end of the formal mourning, but for most families it does not actually end there.

My brother-in-law, Arun, died in a cycling accident last summer at age 53. In a kind of daze we moved through the ritual mourning period, grateful for the structure it provided to a world that suddenly seemed incomprehensible and meaningless. The vividness of his personality and the assurance of a presence we had taken as given for the foreseeable future--only 53!--made his death a bewildering, disorienting experience. It couldn't be true. And 13 days, we discovered, was nowhere enough time to deal with the grief, the confusion, and the new blank future we all faced.

It was then for the first time that I truly appreciated another Indian tradition--the one in which a bereaved family forgoes celebrating any festivals for an entire year after the person's death. We had done it as a matter of course when my father-in-law died, but because he was elderly and his death was a release (he had told us he wanted it to be celebrated with a brass band leading his funeral procession), we almost had to remind ourselves that we weren't celebrating as each festival rolled around that year.

After Arun's death, however, the will to rejoice was missing. It all seemed a bit ridiculous, a contrived show of emotion we were far from feeling. Lighting firecrackers at Diwali, throwing colors at Holi, baking birthday cakes, sending Valentines, ringing in the New Year--without Arun, what was the point?

But Christmas ... now that somehow seemed different.

In the small north Indian town where we live, Christmas is--for most people--just another day. Offices are open, the newspaper arrives, mail is delivered, traffic moves at the typical crazy pace. The vegetable vendors ply their wares on the street; the trash is collected as usual.

Celebrating Christmas feels like our personal responsibility. It happens here because we make it happen: We decorate the house with lights and stars and garlands and a wreath on the door. We manage with great difficulty to find a real tree every year, at least 8 feet tall, and we invite all of our friends to come and decorate it with us. We have an Advent calendar and an Advent wreath and we celebrate St. Nicholas Day with stockings for all the children of the area. I bake for weeks in advance and our Christmas party is the event of the neighborhood.

People have told us that they go out of their way during December just to drive by our house and see how it looks all lit up at night. Total strangers knock on the door and ask if they can come in and see the tree. Many bring their cameras and ask us to photograph them standing in front of it.

One morning three children came to the gate and asked to be allowed a peek. My husband, who has a long-flowing white beard and is round and chubby (a right jolly old elf) was sitting at the table having breakfast. The children were astonished. "Auntie," one of them whispered to me. "Does Father Christmas live here?"

The year of Arun's death, in spite of having no desire to celebrate Christmas, the thought of not doing it still made me strangely nervous. No party? No tree? No gifts? And though I knew no one would question our decision--indeed, they would think us strange if we did celebrate--I worried nonetheless about what people would say. But from an even deeper place, I worried about how I would feel: not sending out cards, not decorating the house, not putting up a tree, not getting to impress the whole neighborhood with my cakes and cookies, not having a pile of gifts to unwrap on Christmas morning. Would it really be Christmas? How would we know?

In the end, we decided as a family not to have a party, not to decorate the house, and to limit the gifts to the children, and only one each. The difference this made in our moods and our stress levels was nothing short of astonishing. That year, for the first time in my adult life, I enjoyed December. No frantic last-minute trips to the market for that one crucial thing I had forgotten. No wrapping paper slivers all over the living room floor, no staying up till 2 a.m. finishing the last batch of cookies, no worrying if I had bought enough gifts for each person in the family, no worrying, indeed, about any of the things I had never even realized I worried about at all.

Advent was a strange period of quiet, of evenings spent wondering what to do with myself, as none of the usual rules seemed any longer to apply. Instead of important things like making shopping lists and fretting about my dwindling bank balance, I found myself wondering about inconsequentials like Mary saying yes and about what she must have been feeling in the days before her delivery, about Jesus as an infant and what his arrival in this world meant to list-makers like me.

I thought about his birth in relation to Arun's death. I thought about his grief when Lazarus died, about the world being "vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle," about the risks and dangers of love, and about eternity, reunion, and the Resurrection.

It was the strangest, most bittersweet Christmas I have experienced. The sadness of losing A run was sharper than ever but beginning to be tempered now in the context of eternity.

My husband is a Hindu, but because he knows how important Christmas is to me, he always gives his staff a holiday and makes sure no one disturbs us at home on that day (no mean feat in India, where the concept of privacy or the sanctity of family time does not exist). This year, however, since we were not celebrating, he asked if we would mind him going to Delhi for an important annual meeting he had never previously been able to attend because it is always held on Christmas.

The girls (our son was in college in Boston) and I had no objection, and he left on December 23. We went to midnight Mass on the 24th with one of our closest friends and awoke the next morning to a quiet, subdued Christmas. The gift opening was over in less than five minutes (it usually takes us hours--partly because there are always so many, and partly because we get interrupted every 10 minutes by someone calling to greet us or dropping in to bring sweets or flowers; this year, our friends honored our desire not to celebrate by leaving us alone), and we sat quietly with coffee, listening to carols and chatting.

I had invited a few close friends over for dinner that evening, and Cathleen and I spent the afternoon in a pleasant hum of activity, while Moy Moy, our youngest, supervised the proceedings from her wheelchair. The kitchen was full of the familiar smells of childhood, and we commented several times on how much nicer and more peaceful this Christmas was than any we could remember.

By 7:30, everything was ready. The house glowed with candles, and the girls and I were all dressed up and waiting for our guests to arrive. When everyone had arrived and drinks had been served, I put the dinner on the table and asked everyone to gather 'round for the blessing before we started to eat.

At that moment the door opened and our son walked in. At first I was too stunned to take it in--Anand was in Boston! I had spoken to him just the day before! How could he possibly be here in India? Then as I realized it was true, my legs stopped working and I sank theatrically to the floor.

When I had recovered enough to listen to his story, he explained that he had won $10,000 in electronic merchandise in a recent radio contest. He had kept the laptop and the digital music player and sold the rest, paid his taxes, and used what was left to buy a ticket home. He had just been back to visit us for the whole summer and we weren't expecting to see him again for at least a year.

Knowing that he could have used his small fortune to go to Italy or Paris (as he longed to do) but instead chose to come to Dehradun just for the thrill of surprising his family moved me beyond words.

The rest of the party was a happy dream. I left the guests to fend for themselves and didn't even think about second helpings or whether anyone needed salt or butter or a glass of wine. I forgot to serve the pumpkin pie and never offered coffee or tea or did any of the things a hostess does. I just kept gazing at my three chickadees together under one roof, imagining my husband's delight when he returned, and thinking that this was really what Christmas was all about--love, yes, and caring enough to spend everything to come home.

And oh how I treasured the playing out of the beautiful Christian paradox: that by making a space for death, we get a glimpse of the joy and light that awaits us when we do everything in the atmosphere of eternity.

Jo MCGOWAN, a writer living in Dehra Doon, Uttar Pradesh, India.
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Title Annotation:celebrating Christmas in India
Author:McGowan, Jo
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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