Approaching another wintry holiday season, both pharmacist Mary Mani and Father Ajin George say the celebration of Christmas can play an important role in maintaining both cultural and religious traditions and practises.
Both Mani and Father Ajin are practising Catholics in B.C. who grew up in the Indian state of Kerala. For them, Christmas has proven to be a kind of universal holiday, allowing them to celebrate their faith and upbringing with their community wherever they go.
Mani grew up in Kerala, a state in southern India with one of the highest numbers of practising Christians, and has studied and practised pharmacy across the globe, from New Zealand to Virginia and, now, in the Lower Mainland.
And while she’s come across many places of worship throughout her travels, she’s experienced some challenges in finding a community with which to practise her faith.
“Even though I’d say every corner had a church in Virginia, somehow I was never a part of the church,” says Mani, a feeling she feels came from moving so often.
In the midst of travelling and practising pharmacy across the globe, Mani felt that her children would benefit from becoming more involved in religion and faith. And so, as her family eventually arrived in Canada, she’s found success in finding a religious community with Good Shepherd Church in Surrey.
“They have a huge part in the community in the sense that [Good Shepherd] does a lot of volunteering. I really like that when we talk about God, it’s really through your work,” says Mani.
Father Ajin, who is also from the state of Kerala, has found a similar sense of community in his experience practising in British Columbia. While currently based in Kamloops, he remembers finding joy in shared community during his time with the Immaculate Conception parish and elementary in Delta.
“I loved that ministry and visiting the school,” he says. “It’s a wonderful community of teachers and students, and that had a really powerful impact on my life as a priest. Sometimes in India, priests are on a pedestal, put on a higher level. But I learned a lesson of how light and easy and beautiful it is to come down to the level of the people. Because they will take us as their friends and as their family members.”
Celebrating faith at Christmas
Both Father Ajin and Mani point to a handful of different traditions between Christmas in Kerala and Christmas in Canada. For example, the tradition of hanging a Christmas star on one’s front door isn’t as common here as it is in Kerala, and there’s much less focus in Kerala on the often stressful Canadian tradition of buying gifts for everyone in the family.
Overall, both Mani and Father Ajin agree that, while there are some differences between Christmas in Kerala and Canada, maintaining religious and cultural holiday traditions from India hasn’t proved to be especially challenging.
Mani says attending Christmas mass, singing carols – many of which are just as popular in India as in Canada – and cooking a grand Christmas breakfast with plum cakes and appam, a rice-based pancake topped with meat stew, is just as possible in the Lower Mainland as it is in Kerala.
“I still do those things that my mom used to do, for my kids, just to make them feel how I did,” says Mani. “It was a family thing before too, but [back in Kerala] it was more centered around why Jesus came to earth. Now, it’s more about having the family together again.”
Father Ajin is happy to simply practise Christmas as a religious holiday, in celebration of his faith and of the birth of Jesus.
“There are different cultural traditions that happen in the practise of faith, but ultimately there are elements that never change, wherever you go, if you go to any Catholic church,” he says. “As a priest, I think that the real joy is Christ. He never changes, and he is the one we need to hold onto.”