Far from the beach parties and all night raves, Christmas is an enchanting time to be in Goa, with its mix of tradition, Portuguese legacy and Konkani flavour, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
As a slight winter chill descends on Goa, preparations for the festive season begin weeks in advance. Locals can be seen ferrying gigantic star shaped lanterns and decorations. Others simply strip the frayed decorative paper covering the bamboo frames of last year’s Christmas star and re-clad it. Most houses display a small crib depicting classic Biblical themes – King Herod’s Palace, the nativity scene of Mother Mary and Joseph watching over infant Jesus or ‘Soro jivak boro,’ the first miracle of Jesus turning water into wine.
Most visibly, Santa Claus makes his appearance in cribs across Goa’s wados in strange avatars – on a fishing boat casting a net, paddling a canoe, at a railway crossing, on a plane, riding a bike or climbing a coconut tree. This old tradition of building cribs is supposed to have been started by St Francis of Assisi who erected the first crib in a forest clearing, until his followers elevated it into an artform. In Goa, face-offs take place between local clubs like ‘Tender Boyz of Falvado, Arossim’ or ‘Mexico Boys of Costa Waddo, Cansaulim’.
Long before the big day, Goan households start preparing rum dunked plum cakes, puddings and traditional Christmas sweets like marzipan, neureos (like a gujiya or sweet fried dumpling filled with coconut), dodol (sticky toffee like pudding made of coconut milk, jaggery and rice flour) and kalkals, fried sweets made of flour, eggs and coconut milk. Children of the house are roped in to lend a hand in fashioning the dough on the tines of a fork or a new comb to give it the typical ‘butter curl’ appearance. These are deep fried and coated with a sugar glaze that gives it a crunchy exterior and a soft core. Similar to the Portuguese Christmas sweet Filhós Enroladas, these sweets are called Kidyo (worms) in Konkani. The popular name kalkals (always referred to in plural form) is believed to be onomatopoeic, from the rattling sound they make when shaken in a bowl of sugar syrup. Often given a multi-coloured appearance, kalkals are an important item in the Kuswar, a collection of Goan Christmas treats distributed among neighbours or taken on visits to friends and family a week in advance.
Typically, Catholic families had as many as 22 different treats as part of kuswar. However, due to the laborious method of preparation, the number of items on the sweet platter has dwindled, or people prefer to outsource them or improvise. Besides Bebinca, the famous layered baked dessert made of flour, sugar, coconut milk and ghee, there’s Perada (Guava cheese), Chonya Doce or Doce de Grao (barfi made of Bengal gram, coconut and ghee), Bolinhos (coconut cookies with markings on top), Baath or Batk (moist semolina coconut cake), Nankaties (baked desi biscotti, better known as nankhatai), Kormolas (sweet coconut pastry shaped by hand into flower buds), Pinaca (sweet cutlets of jaggery and crushed rice), Tuelinnas de Coco (sweet made from scraped coconut), Mango Miskut (mango pulp and sugar confectionary), Suspiros (lemon rind and almonds), Bolo de Nozes, (made of coffee, nuts, brandy and breadcrumbs), Bolo de rei (made of semolina, almonds and butter) and pasteis da santa clara (cashewnut and almond dumplings). To the uninitiated Nachidos, Mandares, Pinagre, Cocada and Batica might well seem like names of Portuguese footballers! Which is why, over the years, many delicacies like the Pasteis de nata (milk and egg cream dumplings), Bolo Bebedo (made of biscuits, dried fruit, brandy and custard), Girgilada (made of sesame seeds) and Coscoaroes (made of flour) have disappeared…
Undoubtedly most of these Christmas treats, like the festival itself, can be traced to Portuguese rule in Goa that lasted for nearly five centuries. For the longest time, Christmas in Goa was a fairly conservative affair with midnight mass, sacred sermons, carols and hymns commemorating the birth of Christ. However, its evolution from a religious festivity to a more secular season of merry-making can be ascribed to the hippies…
In the 60s, after migrating from the beaches to the hills and traipsing all over the country, most westerners came back to Goa to celebrate Christmas, as it was visibly the most ‘Christian’ state in the country. The revelry often extended to New Year and beyond, with music on the beach and full moon parties. In a way, this laid the foundation of the future Goa ‘scene’ and December party season.
As Christmas approaches, youngsters form little troupes and visit Catholic homes in their locality singing carols. It’s the only time portly guys are in great demand – so that they can be dressed up as Santa! The groups carry a box to raise funds, which is usually donated to feed the poor or the underprivileged. Most homes get a Christmas tree and all the members get involved in decorating it with baubles, festoons and paper cut lights. People exchange Christmas cards, usually displayed at the crib. Everything is in place by Christmas Eve and by midnight most Goan Catholics flock to the local chapel or parish church for Midnight Mass, which commemorates the birth of Jesus at midnight.
In the old days, no self-respecting Goan Christian would be caught dead partying on the night of December 24. They wear new clothes and exchange greetings, hugs and kisses with their family and friends. Everybody gets a present, normally stacked under the Christmas tree. The celebrations kick in later with a traditional Christmas lunch or dinner; whose centerpiece is usually a succulent, roast suckling pig with wine soaked crackling, downed with copious quantities of red wine or feni.
The lavish Gaulish feast may also include roast chicken, stuffed crab, fish fry reichado, chicken cafreal, beef, Goan sausage with baby potatoes and shallots, wedding pulao, tendli curry (for the chance vegetarian) and an assortment of sweets. There’s also sannas and sorpotel (pork offal)! It’s believed that the name comes from ‘sarapatel’ or confusion, perhaps alluding to the mixture of strange ingredients – heart, liver and the customary pork blood, which is mashed and mixed into the curry!
To quote an anonymous poem steeped in Saudades (that supposedly indescribable feeling of nostalgia): ‘And Oh! For Christmas dinner don’t you think it would be swell/If by some freak of fortune or by some magic spell/We could, as they have in Goa a bottle of the cajel/And toddy leavened sannas to go with Sorpotel!’ Quintessentially Goan eateries like Souza Lobo in Calangute, Martin’s Corner at Betalbatim and Fernando’s Nostalgia in Salcette dish out Christmas spreads, smoked barbeques, roast duck (turkey is too passé), red snapper on banana leaf, lamb curries and sweet-sour spicy prawns. Dessert can range from gooey caramel pudding and homemade rum cakes to more exotic fare – Teia de Aranhas (literally ‘cobweb’ in Portuguese) that’s made of tender coconut strips dusted with castor sugar, Dedos da Dama (marzipan fingers coated with burnt sugar, literally Lady’s Fingers) or Sans Rival, a layered confection of buttercream, meringue, coconut and cashew that literally means ‘without compare’!
Though most five-star hotels and luxury resorts have their Christmas bashes and treats, a great place for a Goan Christmas banquet is Hotel Mandovi at Panjim. In existence from the time that Goa was still a Portuguese enclave (it was set up in 1952, almost a decade before India wrested control), the hotel is known for its annual celebration ‘Jantar de Natal’ on Christmas. Many old-time associations like Clube Nacional and Club Vasco da Gama organize their traditional Christmas Balls on the night of Christmas, usually very formal affairs with strict dress codes.
Festivities and visiting people go on even after the big day, often 10 days beyond Christmas. On New Years night, children sit with an effigy of an old man on the roadside, and collect funds from passers-by. They burn him at midnight, which symbolizes of putting the past behind and ushering in the future. Officially the Christmas season ended on January 6 with the Feast of the Magi, marked by a Church service and a symbolic procession of the three kings at three places in Goa – Reis Magos, Chandor and Cansaulim.
The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated with great reverence and devotion in Cansaulim. Three young boys, usually around 8 to 10 years old, are chosen to enact the role of the Three Kings from the villages of Cansaulim, Arossim and Cuelim. All through the year there’s great excitement and curiosity as to who will be the chosen one. Outsiders cannot claim this privilege, as the boys must be from these three villages only. Being a king, even for a day is serious business, and the boys take great care of themselves. Dressed up as monarchs, they travel on horseback through three different paths and meet near the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies) atop the hill at Cuelim, founded in 1599. They carry gifts of the original trio to pay obeisance to the infant Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and proceed to the chapel together. Meanwhile, huge crowds gather for the Mass, a glimpse of the three kings and the big jatra (fair) on the hilltop.
In recent times, with a sizeable Russian presence in Goa, the festive season has only got stretched. Besides a break from the freezing winter back home, Russians get to celebrate Christmas twice – once on December 25 and again on January 7, the Russian Christmas. Leading five star hotels like Taj Exotica at Benaulim and Grand Hyatt besides other party spots host Christmas bashes on both dates. After all, this is Goa, where the party never stops…
How to reach
By Air: Dabolim Airport is 30km/45 min from the capital city Panjim. There are regular flights every day from Mumbai (1 hr, GoAir 12:15 PM, IndiGo 12:20 PM, and Bangalore (1 hr 10 min, IndiGo 12:55 PM, Air Asia 3:10 PM)
By Rail: Thivim Railway Station, an ideal stop for beaches of North Goa, is just 9km from Mapusa while Vasco da Gama is 27km south of Panjim. Margao or Madgaon Railway Station, more suited for beaches of South Goa, is 7.5 km east of Colva. From Mumbai, Jan Shatabdi Express (12051) leaves Dadar at 5:25 AM and reaches Thivim at 1:50 PM and Mandovi Express (10103) departs from Mumbai CST at 7:10 AM to reach at 6:50 PM. The overnight Mangalore Express (12133) leaves CST at 10PM and reaches Madgaon at 7AM while Konkan Kanya Express (10111) departs from CST at 11:05 PM to reach Thivim at 10:45 AM.
By road: Goa is almost equidistant from Mumbai and Bangalore. Panjim is around 540 km from Mumbai by NH-66/NH-17 and 590 km from Bangalore via NH-4.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Discover India magazine.