Beyond the chilly fog and the runny red nose, winter is most definitely North India’s favourite season. With winter comes the unmistakable feeling of missing home (if you’re staying away from family), along with a few favourites like the comfortable sweater that doesn’t go with anything, that warm blanket and those five extra minutes in it, the garam chai that follows those five minutes, moomphalli and til shakri in the sun, orange and carrot juice, meatloaf and Christmas cake.
Paris can have its romance in February and New York can have its cherry blossoming in spring, but no one can quite do winter like North India – it’s bitterly cold, utterly festive, totally beautiful and wonderfully precious. In a strange way festivals and foods are a great unifying factor here. Here, we explore how.
Having grown up in Lucknow – a predominantly Hindi/Urdu-speaking city – I have for the longest time referred to Christmas as bada din (long day) owing to its proximity to the winter solstice. ‘Christmas season’ was originally synonymous with Christmastide, a term derived from Yuletide – which runs from December 25 (Christmas Day) to January 6 (Epiphany) – popularly known as the 12 Days of Christmas. The festival has always been about Santa Claus, bright lights and shiny baubles, the Christmas tree, bright red poinsettia on the doorway, the best clothes, and special midnight masses in churches.
For me, it was a special time growing up and I remember how we’d buy fruit, chop it in tiny bits and later soak it in rum. Another fond memory is heading to an old Muslim bakery with family for a special day – it’s hard to forget the last minute rush for more eggs for the batter or more sugar. The cake batter would be mixed in this huge degchi put into little brick shaped cake tins. I don’t think anything in a fancy bakery in Delhi can replace that smell of cakes baking or that togetherness of sitting out in the sun eating peanuts waiting for the cake to finish baking.
My mother is a fantastic cook and she would always have a special Christmas menu –spicy meatloaf, salted meat or stuffed roast, a potato salad, a fish lyonnaise, green peas and homemade bread. These always remained the staple for any Christmas dinner with the family. Families would exchange gifts and trade recipes with secret ingredients. There was great joy in the act of sharing and giving that made the festival mean so much more.
New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day
New Year’s Eve has no major religious significance but the year’s end is reason enough for most to celebrate. May be it’s knowing that you have a clean slate and 365 days to make things happen that add to the charm of this event. Popular culture will have you believe that a list of resolutions is must. Whether you make one or not, there’s always a good New Year’s Day brunch to look forward to (the plethora of restaurants now offering this sure make it look easy).
Lohri/ Pongal/ Makar Sankranti
Originating as an almost pagan harvest festival, Lohri is the time for much feasting and gaiety. It falls on the 13th day of January (in the month of Paush or Magh) – a day before Makar Sankranthi – and marks the end of winter and the return of longer days. The Lohri fire which remains central to Lohri and is considered to be a deity is offered chivra (beaten rice), meva (dry fruits) Til-gur-revri (sesame seeds) and gajak (variety of sweetened sesame seeds). The central theme of many Lohri songs is the legend of Dulla Bhatti, a local hero – a Robin Hood-like figure from Punjab – who, besides robbing the rich, rescued girls forcibly sold in slave markets, and later, in a bid to give them their lives back, got them married. Amongst them were two girls Sundri and Mundri who gradually became the theme of Punjabi folklore.
Makar Sankranti is celebrated when the sun transits Makar (Capricorn). What makes this day special is that on this day the lunar and solar calendars are in sync. This normally happens on 14 January. Also known as Uttarayan Sankranthi, the day is marked by Hindu devotees taking a dip in the holy Ganges. In some parts of UP, Bihar and Haryana, the day is also called Kichchadi because people are given a cooked lentils and rice dish known by the same name.
Celebrated almost at the same time when Lohri and Makar Sankranthi are celebrated in the north, Pongal is a favourite festival of Tamilians. A harvest festival honouring the Sun God and the lord of rains, Indra, Pongal gives thanks for the plentiful paddy crops harvested during the mild winter months in South India. Literally meaning boiling over, Pongal, signifies the advent of prosperity.
Basant, fondly known as the king of all seasons, is when nature is at its brightest, happiest best. Dedicated to Saraswati – the Goddess of learning, wisdom, and fine arts –the ancient Hindu calendar started with this season which is celebrated on the fifth day of Magha. Taking cue from the mustard fields, clothes yellow in colour (yellow signifying maturity and ripeness) are worn on this day. Ber, a kind of plume found in abundance in North India, and Sangari, a kind of bean that grows in the root of the radish plant are offered to the goddess. Basant Panchami continues to be a great day to look for colourful paper kites in the sky with most indulging in what has come to be known as patang faroshi (loosely translated as a deep passion for kite flying).
Anyone travelling to India can always expect a riot of colours, sights, sounds and smells. For most of us, festivals are at centre of not just our social calendars but our lives.