25 Dec 2019 | 03:20am IST
The Goan festive season through history
Baby Jesus in a straw manger, paper stars hanging from balcony beams, home-made sweets and savouries, midnight mass, and open-air dances; these memories swirl like toffee when I think of a Goan Christmas. To drink deeply of nostalgia, I rifled through old newspapers to get a sense of how Goans have celebrated Christmas through the years.
One correspondent for The Times of London recounted a 1930s ‘Christmas in Goa’: “Our host and hostess were a charming couple who lived on the revenue of their property and had a large house with many rooms to spare… Christmas dinner proved to be something like a private cabaret, the entertainers being the younger members of the family of our hosts. We sat around a long room and a bottle of vintage wine was opened. A young man gave us a tune on the fiddle and was loudly applauded. Then some of the boys and girls danced to the music of the gramophone. The proceedings followed the same sequence all over again – wine and further toasting, music and dancing and food. What the dishes were, I cannot recall at this distance, but they certainly included every type of Goan delicacy, highly spiced sausage, tamarind fish and so on. And of the wines that came around I have no count.”
The home-grown tradition of celebrating with food, singing, music and dance forms a common thread throughout Goan diaspora history. The lead into the Christmas Season is always the feast of St Francis Xavier,wherever Goan communities congregate. It was celebrated right from the inception of the Catholic Church in British East Africa, and in 1920, the Nairobi Goan Tailors’ Society petitioned the Kenya government to declare 3 December a holiday for Goans. Although unsuccessful, they did manage to be excused from work till 10am, allowing them enough time to attend the morning mass. This tradition of honouring the saint continues to this day in Nairobi, thanks to the St. Francis Xavier’s Committee.
One account of Christmas celebrations in early Nairobi appeared on the African Standard,January 1913, titled ‘Goan Xmas Sport.’ The reporter noted: “Favoured by just the proper weather for an occasion of this kind, the Christmas Sports organised by and held under the auspices of the Goan Union on Saturday, proved to be an unqualified success. The Sports, which were really of the nature of a children’s fete were well patronised and the somewhat versatile programme secured many entrants. The grounds – those of Mr Campos situated between River Road and Victoria Street – were decorated for the occasion with flags of all nations, and a display of evergreens and bunting was in evidence in the vicinity of the Ladies’ stand and the stall…Many well-known Goans and Indians with their wives [and] families patronised the Sports and a prominent figure was that of R. A. Nazareth whose firm was the donor of the cup which bears his name. During the course of the Sports, an orchestra composed of some gentlemen who had kindly volunteered their services, discoursed music.”
The ‘Mr Campos’ they write about refers to Julio Marcelo Campos who arrived in Nairobi circa 1898, joining the Uganda Railway administration, as a typist. This early pioneer, a young, articulate man whose family originated from Saligao, was a founding member of the Nairobi Goan Institute and would play an integral role in the political and social life of Nairobi. The other Goan mentioned R. A. Nazareth, was an equally prominent pioneer, one half of the Nazareth brothers from Moira who in the opening decades of the 20th century heralded a formidable business empire across Kenya.
It is of course, the cultural organisations, the Goan associations, societies and clubs which bear the burden of organising public functions in the diaspora. With the decolonisation of Africa, and the subsequent re-settlement of East African Goans, the legacy of the East African Goan associations was carefully implanted in England, Canada and Australia.
The seedling for the Goan Association UK (G.O.A) was sown on Boxing Day, 26 December 1962, when a group of Catholics gathered at Finsbury Park to discuss the idea of a ‘notional association’ which would provide respite from the loneliness of being away from home, felt all the more acutely at Christmas. This seedling finally found fertile ground in 1966 as the association that exists today was born, but throughout the 1970s, Goan village associations also sprouted across London suburbs, to further a sense of kinship and bonding. newsletter dated March 1975.
“Saligao Association had their New Year get-together at Notre Dame Hall, Leicester Place [London] on 1st January and what a resounding success it was. The Social was preceded by sung mass in Notre Dame Church, at which Rev. Fr. Le Clerc officiated. The Choir was manned by Virginia Vaz and Tolly Barretto. Over 400 members, their guests and families were then entertained to a sumptuous meal of Biryani followed by non-stop dancing.
Even as Goans assimilate and embrace new traditions such as stuffing turkey, drinking eggnog, and watching the snow powder their driveways, it is the old songs, the old recipes, the old rituals they brought with them from the home country and passed on to their children, that take them to a place of familiar joy.
Season’s Greetings to all.
(The writer is the Author of Goan Pioneers of East Africa)