Christmas in India, the shunning of it, has become key to fashioning a new national character. Priests singing carols are detained by the police and fringe Hindu groups ask schools not to celebrate Christmas. Dignitaries are trolled for promoting Christmas themed events or for inviting people to festive parties. Christmas functions in Rajasthan are stormed by the saffron brigade.

Something about both the religious and secular traditions of Christmas in India, the sense of cultures blending slowly over centuries like rum in a good plum cake, makes the guardians of the new nationalism nervous. As they equate Indian with Hindu, as they reach for a cultural purity that perhaps never existed, Christmas becomes a festival to define themselves against.

But then, Christmas in India was always a battleground for anxious identities. Ask Rudyard Kipling, probably swatting flies in dusty Lahore as he wrote verse by that very name, Christmas in India. “Dim dawn behind the tamerisks – the sky is saffron-yellow,” it began, invoking at once a world of difference from the skies and tree tops of England and Englishness.

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Today’s bigots see Christmas as a “cultural war against Hindus”, a sort of contamination that must be purged from the Indian landscape. Kipling, arguably one of the most rabid defenders of Empire, seems to use it as a talisman against the East.

Behind the tamerisks

The poem first appeared in the Pioneer in 1886, in a column called “Latter-Day Carols”. Kipling, who then worked as an assistant editor for the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, had been commissioned to write it by the editors of the Pioneer in Allahabad.

It was so “unchristmassy”, writes the journalist E Kay Robinson, that he promptly wrote a parody of the poem, entitled The Dyspeptic in India. It took an equally “dolorous view” of Yuletide in London, suggesting that India, “with its blue skies and bright sunshine” is the only place where Christmas may be enjoyed.

Yet Kipling had been deathly serious. The poem travels through Christmas day as the sun climbs the sky and then sets behind the tamerisks, taking in flocks of parrots by the river, cattle in the field and funeral processions which “call on Rama” as they march towards the ghat.

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India, with its reeking byways and dusty highways, is a “grim Stepmother” to the British colonials, bearing them away from the “white and scarlet berry” and Christmas cheer at “Home”. But home, or England, does not always bring comfort. The poet writes bitterly of family and friends “who will drink our healths at dinner” and then “forget us till another year be gone”.

The merry group imagined in England conjures up a contrast in India, a lonely huddle of British officers attempting a ghastly imitation of Christmas cheer. Kipling describes them as “India’s exiles”, a rather dramatic word for men who had not been forced to leave their homeland and who faced no proscription on return.

In many of Kipling’s short stories, the British in India are victims of a wild country. Officers in arid outposts battle ghosts and disease, women are driven out of their mind by perfidious lovers whose morals seem to have been corrupted by tropical climes. They are perhaps the “Outside Men”, playing out their Englishness in clubhouses across the Empire and various parts of the East. They are colonials, strangely mixed, rather than Englishmen.

The patriot

Kipling’s parents are said to have identified as “Anglo-Indians”, a term used in the 19th century to describe people of British origin living in India. For Kipling, the question of identity was not easily settled.

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Born in Bombay, he had an “edenic” childhood before he was packed off to a school in England for a harrowing few years, after which he returned to India. It was not until 1896, after a spell in the United States, that he went back to England for good, though he continued to visit British colonies in South Africa. Much of his later life seems to have been spent laying claim to England and an English identity.

The anxieties of Christmas in England, an early poem, are replaced by a strident articulation of the duties of Empire in The White Man’s Burden (1899). As the British Empire waged war in various parts of the world, Kipling provided the war cry. During the Boer War, for instance, he wrote poems and tracts rallying support for the British cause, prompting detractors to call him the “Bard of Bloodshed”.

He seems to have convinced at least a few lettered men. The critic, Charles Eliot Norton, gushes:

“The dominant tone of his verse is indeed the patriotic; and it is the tone of the new patriotism, that of imperial England, which holds as one all parts of her wide-stretched empire.”

This new patriotism finds full blown expression in A Song of the English, which lays out the ideal national character – martial Britons, for whom god has “smote…a pathway to the ends of all the Earth”, fulfilling the destinies of empire.

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Were these militant assertions meant to cover up for a lack of emotional ties to the motherland? “The great gap in his mind is what may roughly be called the lack of patriotism,” writes author GK Chesterton, damningly. “He admires England, but he does not love her…He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”

As the clouds of the Second World War gathered, Kipling was still railing against pacifism and the loss of “ancestral virtues”. Yet his patriotism had fallen out of fashion. George Orwell pronounced him a “jingo imperialist”.

Contagion

Before the militant nationalist, however, there was the doubting young poet of Christmas in India. The poem captures a moment when he could almost have yielded to the lure of other cultures, when hybridity seemed possible.

The Indian landscape, with its saffron skies, is Hinduised in Kipling’s poem. The temple bells and the chanting of mourners, sounds which must have been familiar from his childhood, seem to exert a pull on him. A “black dividing Sea and alien Plain” separate him from England, images which conjure up Hindu taboos against crossing the “black water”. In the end, Kipling and his compatriots must celebrate and “be merry as the custom of our caste”.

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The poet almost seems to have acquiesced to a hybrid identity, infused with cultures and landscapes that he knew well and would write about in years to come. But he also scripts the shunning of these influences. While the mourners call Hindu gods, “good Christian men” must turn to “other altars”. There is the dread that once they enter the “shrine” of “India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind”, “the door is shut – we may not look behind”.

To give in to these cultural influences could mean being locked out of the English identity he has imagined for himself. So, the would-be English nationalist wards off the contaminating East and observes Christmas rituals, identified as Western. It is no surprise that Kipling does not recognise Christmas traditions that would already have existed for centuries in India.

Not for Kipling the richness of composite cultures, of becoming “a part of all that I have met”. Did the terror of turning hybrid birth the jingo imperialist, the venom-spewing patriot and the champion of genocidal British policies in South Africa? And have our friendly saffron brigades been afflicted by the same night terrors these past few days?