Red Pepper Christmas

Features Issue 25 Aug, 2010
Text by Alan Rudderham

Nepal is famous for its festivals and the way in which these celebrations make the culture and traditions of the country a living reality. Chief amongst them, of course; are Dashain and Tihar, and then there are Magh Sangrati, Indra Jatra, Teej, and many others. These important festivals have been celebrated since time immemorial, but in recent years  western celebrations have begun to be observed in Nepal too. In Kathmandu Christmas is a quiet affair and is certainly no match for Tihar but you would have to be deaf to miss the  whoops and bangs that occur  when the New Year arrives in the Valley. And then there is Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, Halloween and Valentine’s… Is all this a bit unfortunate? Critics would argue that the traditional festivals of the world are being made meaningless, reduced to “themes” that can be packaged and sold. Those less critical  might  say that you really can’t have too much of a good thing (and what else can a celebration be but a good thing?) and so lets enjoy!

The New Year is a real bash at Dwarika’s with party time in the open courtyard of the hotel. It is now a tradition for all the hotel lights to be dimmed just before the midnight hour and then turned on again as the New Year arrives with the celebrations continuing  into the early hours. Christmas, however, is a much quieter affair, explains Sagun Pradhan, Consultant Food and Beverage Manager at Dwarika’s. It is a time when many of the hotel’s expatriate patrons have left the city for the holiday period. However, Dwarika’s does cater to those guests who like to be reminded that Christmas time has arrived with a “Secret Santa” handing out gifts on Christmas day.

The care Dwarika’s takes over its Christmas menu is an illustration of the attention it pays to Nepali heritage and tradition alongside what is best of the modern. The traditional Christmas turkey, for example, is marinated with mild Nepali herbs and served sekuwa style with strawberry chutney. Western and Nepali traditions meet - and the result is something distinctive and new.

Sagun Pradhan says that the increased interest in western festivals has come about ever since more and more young Nepalis have gone abroad to study or work and then returned home bringing with them different expectations and lifestyles. Many young Nepalis now like to have a social life outside the home and eating out is becoming a more and more popular pastime. Mothers and Fathers Day are great family celebration days  - and hotels, restaurants and entertainment spots cater for this - while Valentines Day is a time to escape mum and dad - and there are lots of places where you can do this too!  Nepalis  are less likely to celebrate common western religious holidays like Christmas or Passover (the Jewish celebration of the Exodus from Egypt), or other country’s national holidays such as Thanksgiving independently, but are usually happy to join western friends in their festivities.

Festival time western style is a manifestation of something that perhaps goes a lot deeper - the fact that young educated Nepalis are managing to embrace western culture in a positive way. Sagun Pradhan himself is a good example of this. He has recently returned to Nepal after working as a chef and F&B manager in the Philippines and New York. His wife is a Catholic and his son bears the Christian name Christopher Siddhartha. Five year old Christopher has already prepared his Christmas present wish-list and on Christmas Eve he will be putting out the mince pies for Santa’s visit.

Not only mince pies but also Christmas cake, plum pudding and ginger cake are on offer at the Bakery shop at the Radisson over the Christmas period. And sales are always good according to the General Manager at the hotel. He reckons that his Nepali customers either buy out of curiosity or because they have acquired the taste abroad or because they are buying gifts for expatriate friends. An indication of how popular Christmas has become amongst the Radisson clientele is the number of private function that have been booked over the holiday period - and mostly by Nepali customers. (Thus far there are no bookings for Hannukah, probably because it is less widely known, but don’t be surprised if you hear about potato pancake and dreidel parties in a year or two!) A Radisson tradition is to have eggnog on offer on boxing day (the day after Christmas) for those who have indulged a little too much and more of the same may be called for when it puts on a St. Patrick’s day night in the year to come.

There are not that many people in Nepal who have even heard of Dwarika’s or the Radisson and far fewer have paid the places a visit. Even so, the western celebrations they are catering for indicate the growing interest in such things among Nepalis. Father Bill Robbins of the St. Xavier’s Social Service Centre points out that the vast majority of Nepalis have little idea of what Christmas or any other western festival is about.  He does note however, that there is a now sizeable number of Nepali Christians, many in rural areas and many amongst the minority caste groups, and that this number is steadily growing (at the last count it was approximately 600,000).  These people will undoubtedly be celebrating Christmas in church.  Is this the “true Christmas” and if so, how should  “party time” Christmas in the capital be regarded? These are not the sort of judgements that Father Bill is prepared to make. Christmas, he argues, is about acceptance and peace and joy and at its heart is a celebration of God becoming human for all humanity.

The Christmas lights are up at the handicraft shop Mahaguthi in Lazimpat and if you squint a bit you might be able to imagine the light shows that are commonplace in many towns throughout the world at this time of year. Maghaguthi is selling simple and creative Christmas gift and trinkets; a colorful christmas wreath, for example, made up of bright red peppers instead of the usual holly and red berries. Turkey sekuwa and red pepper wreaths and a little boy with the names  Christopher and Siddartha - these are the simple signs of cultures coming  together at the times of our celebrations.