Holding On To Tradition: Christmas In Pakistan
With Christmas holidays in full swing and everyone enjoying feasts with families, I am reminded of my childhood and what December 25th used to be like for me, sharing joy with the millions of fellow Christians in Pakistan.
My Childhood In Karachi
When I moved to a new house in one of Karachi’s middle class localities as a four-year-old, both my next-door neighbors were Christians, each with a pet dog—something the majority of Muslims don’t do. Soon after, another family moved in next door with a son my age. He eventually became the best bowler of any of us and the glue of our neighborhood’s cricket team.
Thanks to my new friend and his family, every year at Christmas I was greeted with home-made cake and other delights, the kind you can’t find in any of the eateries or restaurants. There also used to be a beautiful tree his family decorated every year, which neighborhood friends helped out in adorning. One of the best parts of the day was watching the Roberts family all dressed up in suits and dresses, going to attend Mass at church.
The Mainstream Media’s Negative Image Of Pakistan
For the past decade or so Pakistan has been in the news for mostly the wrong reasons. From suicide attacks to a crumbling economy, things have been far from positive. Pakistani society has witnessed a steep rise in religious extremism, much to the alarm of minorities—mostly Christians and Hindus—who have seen attacks on their places of worship, and often endure bogus charges of blasphemy and other forms of marginalization. But beyond this changing fabric of the country and negative tensions lies a thriving Christian community, as Pakistani as anyone else, with its own unique identity and culture.
Pakistan’s Christian Community
Christians make up around two percent of Pakistan’s 200 million plus overall population with the majority being Catholic. Be it the prestigious convent schools across all major cities that have produced the country’s elite and beautiful Gothic style churches, it’s impossible to ignore the presence and contribution of the Christian population.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most diverse city, is home to a sizeable Christian population with many tracing their ancestry back to the Portuguese colony of Goa and some to the state of Madras (now called Chennai) in southern India.
These folks are are typically urban middle class individuals, mostly salaried professionals and well known for their command of the English language. That has helped them build a reputation of being good educationists and administrators, and they tend to occupy key positions in schools across the city, particularly convent-run schools. They draw a lot of their identity from their ancestry: be it the Portuguese names, Westernized cuisines or even various family traditions.
The Majority Of Pakistani Christians Are Punjabis
However, the great majority of Christians in Pakistan are Punjabi, mostly descended from lower-caste Hindus who converted after evangelizing from foreign missionaries. As a result, their identity is very much ingrained in the local community, similar to any other Punjabi regardless of their religion.
For example, while the Goans bake cakes or other Western delights and feast on turkey, Punjabis generally make gajrela, a traditional Pakistani carrot-based dessert, and the usual items like biryani rice or some variety of curry.
Pakistan’s Christian populations have their own pockets across different cities such as Youhanabad in Lahore, or the Catholic Colony and Isa Nagri (Jesus township) in Karachi. It is in these neighborhoods that one can see obvious displays of joy and celebration of Christian festivals, such as Christmas lights or stars put up in the streets.
Christmas In Pakistan
Christmas Eve is marked by Mass across the churches in the city, most notably at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi where Cardinal Joseph Coutts, the highest ordained priest in the country who serves as the direct link with the Vatican, addresses worshipers.
In the provincial capitals there are many historic churches, often built by missionaries during the British Raj. A mass is held in English early Christmas morning, followed by one in Urdu. Beyond these urban centres, however, congregations are led almost exclusively in the Punjabi language.
Among Karachi’s middle-class Christians (predominantly Goans), there is also an old tradition to frequent a Misquita bakery near the city centre for a special rich plum cake on Christmas and the popular hot-cross buns during Easter.
Celeste Francis, a resident of Karachi, shares her experience: “We celebrate Christmas beforehand as the preparation starts a month before. We usually start prepping for the cakes and sweets before the day itself. There are four weeks ahead of the day called Advent: for each, we have candles lit up reminding us of how close we are to the actual day.
“We start making sweets with family together, decorating our house because it’s the birthday of Jesus Christ. On 25th itself, we start off by going to church and then distributing sweets to neighbours and people mourning. And then enjoy like usual with family and friends.”
Despite the challenges to their community, Pakistan’s Christians have held on to their identity. With the security situation hopefully improving over time, we pray that fears will subside and they will be permitted to practice their faith freely and proudly.