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The many faces of Christmas

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Early Christians didn't observe Christmas until the fourth century, and Puritan settlers in America banned it for a time. It wasn't even a federal holiday until 1870. Celebrations evolved and blended many traditions - including pagan ones. What is Christmas like in other lands?

India

In his tiny village in southern India, Tom Palakudiyil would look forward to Christmas, but not because of the snow. Tom's village is in a tropical rain forest where it never snows. He also didn't look forward to getting or giving presents. Indian Christians in Tom's village don't give presents.

Christmas, for Tom, was an exciting time when Christian families would mark all 25 days of December, a time called "the Advent." Christians stopped eating meat and fish during Advent, so Tom looked forward to tasty Christmas meals, when he'd eat spicy meat, tangy fish, rice, vegetables, and sweets - as much as he wanted.

Tom is a Syrian Christian. Syrian Christians came from the Middle East to the Indian state of Kerala nearly 1,800 years ago. Although traditions in Tom's village have changed since Tom moved away almost 40 years ago (some Keralites now tell their children the Santa Claus myth), it's fair to say that the Syrian Christians there practice a very old form of Christianity.

For Christians in Kerala, Christmas is centered on the church. Children are in charge of decorating the church. Older children hang crepe paper streamers. Younger children make paper lanterns in the form of stars, a reminder of the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.

Groups of grownups go house to house, singing carols. They are sung in the Keralite language of Malayalam. Most are lullabies, nursery songs about the baby Jesus.

Decades ago this was an especially magical time, Tom recalls. The village had no electricity, and you could watch the torches of the carolers move through the lush trees. Children giggled in anticipation as carolers approached.

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