I am a Christmas junkie. All year round, I am the not-so-green version of the Grinch, but come December, I revel in every off-key Christmas carol, every severed Santa head dangling from a rear-view mirror, and every plastic Christmas tree. And I am especially glad that I get to make my way back to Bangalore for the merry season because this old cantonment town—with its cool air and clusters of stone churches—guarantees that you’re never far from the Christmas cheer. Back in town after a long year away, I found myself wandering through the heart of the city, sniffing out Christmas plans at the city’s best loved churches, a little ahead of midnight mass this time, trying to make up just a little for, uh, staying away all year.St Mark’s Cathedral, at the very end of MG Road, is Bangalore’s oldest Anglican church. This airy cream-and-brown church, with its high altar, traditional baptismal font and sun-catching stained glass windows, occupies one of the calmest spots in the city, despite the fact that it borders the busiest road in Bangalore. It wasn’t always a thing of beauty—in fact, when it was first built in 1808, a church historian of the time declared that it was “one of the ugliest buildings to ever have been erected, for all purposes looking like a Bryant and Mays matchbox.”
Initially built for the army houses in the cantonment area, the number of worshippers grew from 400 to almost 2,000 within 30 years. After decades of worshippers warring for seats on Sundays, the church was finally enlarged in 1901—a belfry was added, along with transepts and chancels. In 1923, a fire destroyed the entire building, and the church was restored according to the tastes of the day. The fire began, most believe, when a thief lit some candles to see better and set fire to the curtains!
Today, the church caters to a population of 1,000 families, and is unique in that it holds services only in English. This is as much for traditional reasons as for the fact that English is the common language for the worshippers, Rev. Vincent Rajkumar explains. They’ve got a packed schedule this Christmas, and all of their activities are focused on “building bridges” within the community. It is also the church’s 200th anniversary, and for the occasion, five villages outside the city are the focus of its attention. “We’ve encouraged each family in the church to adopt a family in one of these villages and provide them with clothing and financial help for the season,” says Rev. Rajkumar. “There are 500 families to be looked after, and while I cannot yet say how much we’ve changed their lives, they have definitely transformed ours.” Senior citizens, too, have a special place in their programme —the church is working to create a place for neighbourhood elders who live alone to come for a quiet time and companionship.
The Advent Ecumenical Festival of Peace, to which choirs from various other denominations are invited to perform, has been a St Mark’s tradition for the last three years, and fits right in with the church’s desire to reach out to the wider community. Inter-religious dialogue is also an important part of the Christmas celebration, a trend I find is fortunately being replicated in other churches in the city. “We’re also trying to reach out to our immediate neighbours,” says Rev. Rajkumar, referring to the shops and businesses on MG Road and Lavelle Road. “We’re situated so close to them, but hardly ever connect with them as individuals; so this year, we’ve organized a programme especially for them.”
Walk down Brigade Road for only a few minutes, and you’ll find yet another church that manages to stand apart from the shops and showrooms sardined in the city’s commercial district—St Patrick’s Cathedral. With its Gothic architecture, arched entrance and twin spires, it has been part of the cityscape for 162 years, and now caters to a parish of 4,500. According to parish priest Father S. Jayanthan, the most popular Christmas tradition here is the annual crib competition. “It’s held every year, and it gives people a chance to get creative and really get into the spirit of things,” he says. Like St Mark’s, St Patrick’s too encourages dialogue between religious groups. And if you have never attended midnight mass, St Patrick’s is definitely the place to be, and though you will almost certainly have to fight for a seat, it is an essential part of the Bangalore Christmas experience. And after mass at St Patrick’s, hop over to Koshy’s and battle for your turkey.
Just a short drive down the road is Sacred Heart Church. Built in 1884, it started out as a small bungalow. Today, 105 years after the foundation was laid, it has been rebuilt in Gothic style, like many of Bangalore’s churches. Granite, with marble interiors, Corinthian pillars and a bell tower, the church now serves a parish of 10,000. Father Sagaynathan, the parish priest, says this year, like every year, church celebrations will take place in the five zones that the church serves, and alongside Christmas programmes, gifts will be given out to the less fortunate. The high point of the season is definitely midnight mass—which is held in English, Tamil and Kannada, the languages spoken by most worshippers.
St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral is in Fraser Town, the area still referred to as “Cantonment”. First built on a plot of 550 sq. ft, and then rebuilt in 1911, the weathered church has been a pivot for Christian life in the cantonment for 152 years. When I visit, Father John Solomon, the parish priest, is in the thick of Christmas-time organization.
Programmes by the Society of Vincent de Paul, the Ladies of Charity, and the youth group are all on the schedule, along with the children’s Christmas programmes and meals for the less fortunate.
The church celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and in a brochure given to me by Father Solomon, I see that since its establishment, the church has been enhanced structurally by each priest—except during the time of a certain Father Celestine, below whose name it is written in stern words: “maintained status quo”. Midnight masses are well attended here by the church’s 16,000 parishioners as well as visitors.
It is too early in December to be getting the warm fuzzies, but my church hop has left me with plenty of Advent excitement. I might try out a new parish for midnight mass this year, and though I don’t know which one it will be, I know that on Christmas eve, I will be under a starry sky, in one of my favourite cities, waiting for church bells to ring.
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