Harmony & holidays: Indian flair in Aussie Christmas cheer

By Indira Laisram
Pic supplied

From cherished customs rooted in India to embracing the diversity of Australian celebrations, discover how these three families have created a heart-warming celebration of Christmas.

ABINO NIENU hails from Nagaland in northeast India. About ten years ago, she, along with her husband Kuyi Nienu, relocated to Australia from Belgium, where Kuyi was posted temporarily. Upon their arrival, the first thing the family did was look for a church.

“For us, finding a church was paramount. It was challenging, especially considering we had no family or friends in the beginning,” recalls Abino. Their first Christmas in Melbourne was shared with a Naga family friend, providing a comforting connection in this foreign land.

After a year of searching, the family found their Baptist church. The quest was not without its challenges, especially since they didn’t have a car initially. Determined to find a place of worship close to their house, they relied on a combination of train and bus commutes.

After trying out several churches, they eventually discovered Crossway Baptist Church in Burwood. The connection with Crossway Baptist Church has been enduring. Living in Ashwood at the time, they continued attending the church. However, with a move to Berrick, they were delighted to find that Crossway had a branch there, making attendance more convenient.

For Abino, Christmas is synonymous with community, family, and feasting. In Nagaland, a Christian state, the festivities are a grand affair that begins with a morning church service followed by a communal feast, she reminisces. The night before is marked by Christmas carols, either at the church or within the family.

“We used to be dressed at our best. Growing up, we always got new clothes for Christmas day, so it used to be quite a big thing,” she says, adding, “However, for both my children, this is home, and they are more used to the culture here.”

Abino Nienu with his family // Pic supplied

In Australia, Abino found the cultural shift, with an emphasis on gift-giving, Kris Kringle exchanges, and so on—a departure from the predominantly food-sharing focus of her Nagaland upbringing.

Abino reflects, “It is changing now back home, but growing up, we never thought about Christmas gifts, just new clothes. So, embracing this new culture of exchanging presents is a unique and, at the same time, joyous experience for us.”

Despite the evolving traditions, attending church remains a cherished part of Abino’s family Christmas celebrations. Their church, Crossway, boasts a sizable community that adds to the festive spirit. Also, Abino’s young son actively participates in a soccer club where they engage in carol and other community events.

“This year,” Abino says, “our Christmas Day will be different.” The sister church of Crossway Baptist in Berrick still lacks a dedicated space, prompting the congregation to gather in a school auditorium for the morning service. Post-service, the plan is to extend invitations to friends from the Naga community, as well as others, such as Naga students away from their families—an inclusive tradition they have upheld over the years.

Generally, friends bring some food to share, and the festivities progress into dinner as well. For Nagas like Abino, pork is a staple dish. The feast promises a blend of traditional Naga dishes and Australian Christmas delights. While Naga pork with bamboo shoot takes centre stage, the inclusion of ham, cold cuts, cheese platters, and wine reflects the influence of their current Western surroundings.

“Even though we are so far away from home, we still get to cook something traditional—thanks to some of the ingredients such as axone or fermented soya beans, which we can source from local Burmese shops,” says Abino.

What’s more, Abino is secretly excited about her new purchase—a karaoke machine. “It’s so good. We were thinking we can do some Naga songs,” she says with a laugh.

Prasad Philip with his family // Pic supplied

PRASAD PHILIP migrated to Australia from India in 2007. Back in his home state of Kerala, Christmas, for him and his family, always meant attending church services and having family get togethers.

In Australia, there is an inescapable nostalgia of Christmas back home making the celebration a blend of the past and the present. The Philips steadfastly hold onto cherished customs, making attending church services a cornerstone of their Christmas celebrations.

“Attending church services is one of the traditions we follow here as well. Christmas trees, stars, cakes, and Christmas decorations are other traditions that we still preserve during the season. Christmas carols from various churches visit our home, along with Santa,” he says.

Beyond these traditions, the family engages with the local community, neighbours, and organisations to craft a multicultural celebration that involves inviting others to their feasts and parties.

“There are plenty of events organised locally by council and other organisations. We go for those events. We attend the Frankston Festival of Lights every year. Moreover, we participate in the combined carol services and other cultural performances organised by churches around the area,” says Prasad.

As first-generation migrants, the family remains rooted in their culinary traditions, especially when it comes to Indian dishes, particularly non-vegetarian delights like appam, stews, fish molly, cutlets, duck roast, and traditional beef and chicken curries. While dining out, they embrace the diversity of Australian and international cuisines.

In the spirit of giving, the Philips visit their neighbours to share Christmas gifts and actively engage in charity events organised by clubs and organisations, contributing to global initiatives for the vulnerable and underprivileged.

On a personal and family level, Prasad says, “Christmas is a time to refresh ourselves to be more meaningful and helpful. It’s a time to evaluate ourselves to see how far we have been fruitful in terms of exhibiting the selfless love as per the example set by Jesus. The greatest command given by God is to love your neighbour as yourself. So, it’s a time to refresh, reflect and resubmit ourselves.”

Their two children, born and raised in Australia, have blended well into the local culture, actively participating in various Christmas activities. “Our local church, which is Australian based, also has various Christmas activities in which our kids are actively involved.”

Asked if there are specific elements of both Indian and Australian traditions that resonate more with different generations, Prasad says, “Re-establishing connections and relations is one of the elements that resonate with different generations in both cultures. People make time to think about others and care about them. We often lose human connections in this busy world.

“Christmas is a time of reconnecting the loose points by contacting them, visiting them, and presenting gifts to them. Christmas is the time where record communications are exchanged in terms of greeting cards and gifts. So, the culture of reconnecting is evident and is still happening across generations.”

Rowena Solomon with her husband Nilanjan // Pic supplied

ROWEENA SOLOMON hails from Kolkata, India’s city of joy. A Christian, she recalls the religious celebration of attending midnight mass, singing Christmas carols—something she continues to miss to this day.

Roweena and her husband initially migrated to New Zealand, where they lived for 11 years, before making the move to Australia in 2012. She vividly remembers the void left by the absence of extended family during the festive season. “We didn’t have family, but we had good friends who would also be missing their family on that day,” she shares.

Inspired by the warmth of the local people’s celebrations while in New Zealand, Roweena and her husband Nilanjan decided to create a tradition that not only celebrated their Indian roots but also embraced the spirit of family, friendship, and giving.

Their celebration, a departure from the religious-focused gatherings they were accustomed to, evolved into a joyous occasion centred around giving and the tight-knit bonds of family.

Roweena fondly reminisces, “When we began, our gatherings transformed into festive spectacles filled with laughter, delicious treats, and the happy sounds of children at play. In the midst of it all, my husband would sometimes assume the role of Santa Claus distributing gifts that brought smiles to every face.”

As the Christmas celebrations expanded, so did the guest list. Welcoming 30-35 people into their home, Roweena’s celebrations brought in elements from her Indian heritage, replacing traditional church carols with the lively beats of Indian songs and dance. The multicultural ambiance ensured that everyone, regardless of background, could participate and revel in the joy of the festivities.

Rowena with friends and family // Pic supplied

“I can still go to the church here, but due to numerous work-related activities on the 24th, I have actually stopped attending,” she says, adding, “Australia has introduced me to traditions like Kris Kringle or the Bad Santa game at the workplace, and I’ve wholeheartedly embraced all the new traditions.

“Bad Santa is a fun game where participants select a gift from a box, unveil it, and discover assigned numbers. If the number on the gift matches theirs, a delightful opportunity arises to playfully steal the gift from someone else, making the holiday festivities a fun and enriching experience,” explains Roweena, who lives in Point Cook.

In a delightful fusion of Indian and Australian traditions, Roweena’s Christmas gatherings have now become a vibrant mix of food, drinks, laughter, and inclusivity.

“We generally do Christmas dinners where food is biryani and other Mughlai items. For the children, it is always butter chicken. Most of the morning goes into the preparations for the evening,” she says.

Recognising the distance many in their community were from their families, Roweena and her husband has opened their home to friends and families without nearby relatives.

This year will be no different.

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