A Malayali Christmas is a beautiful thing. Christians in Kerala can never keep track of how many factions there are, but broadly speaking, the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Syrian Christians – tracing back to Saint Thomas – are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. In keeping with orthodox religious faiths (of suffering before celebration), the first 24 days of December, leading up to Christmas, are austere and restrained. Most traditional families observe Noyambu, or lent. No meat or dairy is consumed. One leads a pared-back, frugal lifestyle. In the small town of Piravom, where my mother’s parents lived, carollers, (who visited parishioners on foot), were offered simple snacks like black coffee and vattayappams (sweet, mildly fermented rice cakes), or aval with bananas (a simple snack that is best described as south Indian-style granola, made with beaten rice flakes and served with honey).
The length of church service on Christmas eve is often inversely related to the size of the town you grew up in. In Piravom, Christmas eve service begins at midnight and carries on well into the morning of the 25th. Elsie Nanji (née Chandy), celebrated designer, and advertising veteran, grew up in Chennai. Named after Elsie Kimberly, a missionary her mother was especially fond of, Elsie was a frequent churchgoer. Mass was an integral part of Christmas for her. “We were always in church with my mother,” she laughs. “Every service she could take us to, she would!”
Beyond appam and stew
Breakfast across homes in Kerala is a variation of appam and stew. Occasionally, the understated Kerala stew is replaced with a more fiery chicken mappas, cooked with coconut milk and loaded with green chillies and black pepper to lend spice to the Christmas table.
Lunch is considerably more elaborate – red rice, and chicken varutharachathu, a curry made of a spiced coconut base; homemade beef cutlets speckled with coriander and pepper, beef ularthiyathu fried in coconut oil and sprinkled generously with coconut chips. The Christian Kerala table loves its vegetables as much as its meat, so there are always a couple of thorans, vegetables stir-fried with shallot and fresh coconut, or a mezhukkupuratti, seasoned simply with turmeric and chilli, and the inimitable flavour of coconut oil. A limitless supply of crisp pappadum is the marker of a great meal, sealed in large aluminium tins to keep crunch intact, in the balmy weather of tropical Kerala. And dessert is some variation of payasam, sweet coconut milk stewed with rice and vermicelli, plump raisins and toasted cashew.
Another beloved ritual is the annual plum cake tradition. Kaviya Cherian who runs Green Heirloom, a sustainable organic cookware brand out of Thiruvalla—a few hours off Kochi, makes the drive to Kuttanad, to spend Christmas with her grandmother, whose Allepey-style duck roast is the star of the family lunch. But it is the unveiling of plum cake that everyone really waits for. “She soaks her fruit at the beginning of November and bakes the cakes in the first week of December. From then on, until the 25th, she feeds it with rum every three of four days. It is a wonderfully boozy cake by Christmas day!”
Elsie Nanji’s late mother Rebecca Chandy, who authored a cookbook of family favourites, Tried & True, was also famous for her Christmas cake, a ritual she prepared for months in advance. “It was almost a competition, among friends and relatives!” Elsie recalls. After her mother’s passing at age 92, the tradition is carried on by Elsie’s sister. “My oldest sister in Canada still makes mum’s plum cake. She preps it months in advance and brings it down when she comes every year. She soaks the fruits, the orange rind and does everything herself. She makes several cakes, one for each of us.”
After such typically magnificent lunches, everyone finds a spot on the nearest couch, comatose until someone offers to make a round of tea. At which time, more snacks are passed around: achappams, or rose cookies, speckled with sesame, are a favourite. Diamond cuts, sweet avalose undas—balls of rice flour, jaggery and coconut—that can be unassumingly addictive, follow along with kalkals, delicately styled with the back of a fork, then dusted in sugar, the closest to snow-frosting that our slice of tropical paradise will allow. There are neyyappams, too, made with ghee and flour, crisp on the outside, pillowy on the inside, murrukku, and aval vilayichathu, made from sweetened, beaten rice flakes. And in Kaviya’s home, where her intrepid grandmother pulps jackfruit to store in freezer bags for year-round treats, Christmas tea includes kumbalappam, jackfruit dumplings steamed in fragrant cones, fashioned with leaves from the Indian bayleaf tree.
A festival of togetherness
It goes without saying of course, that Christmas is synonymous with family. My grandparents would host breakfast for three generations, after church on Christmas morning. The family continued to hang about, opening presents over several rounds of plum cake and coffee, until lunch was served.
Rekha Maliakal’s large family gather over a potluck feast. “Mum makes a banging duck roast. My cousins, who are wonderful horticulturalists, make fresh pasta salads with veggies from their garden. We usually have some excellent beef and prawn pickle. And fish, of course – we’re coastal kids, very exacting about our seafood. Dessert is usually a pavlova or some kind of flambe-theatre that brings everyone back around the table.”
Many families also make their own rituals. This year, Rekha and her mother, Beena Maliakal, using pine cones and leaves from her husband’s farm in Vagamon and leftover handloom fabric from her mother’s boutique, have been hand-making Christmas wreaths. “I’ve always felt the decor we use is too European, not taking into account our own biodiversity or way of life,” Rekha explains. “We used to make these wreaths for friends, but this year, we spread the net a bit wider. All proceeds from the sales are going to a charity home in Pala, Mariyasadanam, that takes care of people with mental illness.”
My own mother and grandmother would busy the grandchildren with post-breakfast errands. They’d assemble beautiful glass trays of homemade Christmas treats, cover the platter with a lace doily, and send us out to deliver them to every home on our street in Bengaluru. My parents continued this ritual of sharing joy in their own way. Christmas dinner was always a wild and merry gathering, hosted for our non-Christian friends. A night of honeyed pork ribs, home-made date rolls and Yule log, biryani, meen curry, and Apricot Delight, usually ended with someone picking up the guitar to lead the party into loud, cheery carols.