Colonial Calcutta: Yesteryear’s Yuletide

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    Christmas has always been a merry affair in Kolkata, which perhaps more than any other city in India revels in a jolly good festival. For some in-your-face X’Mas cheer, kitsch and decorations, and the most delicious plum cake, visit New Market, where Yuletide is especially infectious.

    Christmas in Kolkata is a legacy of its colonial heritage and although celebrated with great vigour today, it might surprise you to learn that in Old Calcutta – the first capital of British India and a major settlement of the British in Bengal – the festival lacked popular appeal and was restricted to the elite and the wealthy.

    The ball and supper hosted by the Governor on Christmas provided ambitious European officers an opportunity to advance their political careers. Among the natives, only the most eminent and the rich attended the Christmas celebrations.

    By the early 19th century, the European community in Calcutta had grown substantially. According to one estimate, by 1810, there were about 4,000 British men and 300 British women in Bengal. In fact, St John’s Church, consecrated in 1787, had become too small for Calcutta's growing European population and the cornerstone of St Paul’s Cathedral was laid in 1839 under the initiative of Bishop Daniel Wilson, the fifth bishop of Calcutta.

    The cathedral could accommodate 800 to 1,000 people and it is probably here that the Christmas Mass in was celebrated Old Calcutta. That is probably why, today too, St Paul’s is one of the most majestic British-era churches in India and where the people of Kolkata throng on Christmas Eve.

    With the rising power and wealth of the British Raj, the European community in Calcutta burgeoned and the Christmas celebrations became more and more lavish. The morning generally started with a public breakfast hosted by the Governor, followed by a dinner ball and supper. Of course, the Governor’s ball was attended by the who’s who of Calcutta.

    Members of the clergy, Board of Trade, judges, field officers… all had to attend the Governor’s entertainment arrangements. “Overflowing loyalty was a prominent feature of these festive celebrations” as toasts echoed from the canon’s mouth for officers distinguished for their loyalty and patriotism.

    Even at the minutes (an 18th –century, stately ballroom dance), it was customary to lead the ladies according to the rank of their husbands in the Services (the British Army), and “those ladies whose husbands were not in the Services were led out in the order they came into the room”! A similar grand entertainment event was arranged by the Governor on New Year’s Eve. Lord Cornwallis’s party on New Year’s Eve lasted from 2 o’clock one day to 4 the next morning! The ladies generally graced the occasion in the evening, “dancing to their heart’s content”.

    Lord Cornwallis who served as Governor-General of India from 1786 to 1793, was known for his simple lifestyle but he also threw jolly good parties on festive occasions, where there were grand illuminations, a delicious supper and the gentlemen were “nearly extinguished by the claret (a type of red wine)”.

    In those times, there were no fairy lights or LED rope lights to check up homes and public buildings. ‘Illuminations’ meant only one thing – candles – and these could be tricky. On one festive occasion, Lord Cornwallis complained that “he gave a concert and supper to all the Settlement, and tried to have illuminations, which the rain put out”.

    In 1804, according to the Calcutta Gazette, an old English daily, one Colonel Harcourt is known to have hosted an extravagant Christmas supper and ball at Cuttack, where guests were treated with a lavish meal consisting of the “the united delicacies” of Calcutta and Madras.

    Such lavish supper and balls were expensive and required elaborate arrangements and preplanning. One of the grandest Christmas balls ever given in Calcutta was the one in 1938, hosted by Lord Brabourne, Governor of Bengal. According to Margaret Makepeace, author and Lead Curator for the East India Company Records at the British Library, Lord Brabourne sent out 140 Christmas cards and their recipients included: 5 kings and queens, 1 princess, 2 countesses, 2 earls, 5 marquesses and marchionesses, 11 viscounts and viscountesses, 5 lords, 16 ladies, 16 knights and 2 dames.

    The entertainment must have been jolly good, for the purchases for the party included: 850 eggs, 800 limes, 15 dozen oranges, 15 bunches of plantains, 70lb cooking butter, 20lb fresh cream, 330 roasting fowls, 78 tins of fruit in syrup, 43 bottles of wine, 120 bottles of whisky, 558 quarts of champagne, 33 bottles of brandy, 10 dozen bottles of lemonade, 4,300 Virginia cigarettes, 1,100 Turkish cigarettes and 385 cigars. Makepeace writes that, “The total bill for the supper amounted to Rupees 5,296”, “of which drinks and smokes accounted for Rupees 4,208” – a very extravagant entertainment bonanza for the times!

    Christmas was, of course, incomplete without turkey. A live Christmas turkey in 1857 cost Rupees 14 as noted by The Bengal Hurkaru, an English daily. Christmas cakes and mince pies, according to the Calcutta Gazette, could be had from Mr Creighton at Harmonic House, the most handsome building in Old Calcutta and the entertainment hub of the city. In the cold weather of Christmas, “fresh oysters and ices” were to be had in abundance, the ice coming from the “ice fields” that were worked near the Hooghly.

    The European gentry also thronged the theatres in large numbers during the Christmas holidays. Popular plays included Shakespeare’s Othello or The Merchant of Venice. Masquerades were another very common means of amusement and dominoes (loose cloak and mask) were advertised for hire during the holiday season.

    It was said that the cold weather also “intensified the dancing fever” and the noted 19th century British traveller Lord Valentia went to the extent of saying that “consumption (tuberculosis) amongst the ladies” occurred due “to their incessant dancing”! (Victims of consumption looked wasted and the Lord believed it was a result of excessive dancing!). Most European ladies and gentlemen in those days had a master who for one hundred rupees used to teach them “the Scotch step” and a variety of other additional steps. Magnificent dresses of muslin were also worn by the ladies to balls in those days, and it was fashionable to style their hair in a “pyramid of gauze, powder, feathers, pomatum (hairdressing consisting of perfumed oil) etc”.

    Although the city went on a spending spree during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the bank in Calcutta remained closed on these two days. There was generally a fortnight-long vacation during the Christmas holidays. Hogg Market, today well known in Kolkata as ‘New Market’, must have been a favourite shopping destination during Christmas even then. The market was named after British civil servant Sir Stuart Hogg and Bengalis in those days would refer to it as Hogg saheber bajaar.

    The market was thrown open to the English populace on 1 January 1874. Hogg Market in Old Calcutta resembled the shopping plazas of today. The huge market boasted exclusive retailers like Ranken and Company (dressmakers) and Cuthbertson and Harper (shoe merchants). Affluent ladies must have thronged these places to get dressed for the magnificent Christmas balls. Even today, Hogg Market or New Market is one of the few places in Kolkata that draws the highest footfalls during Christmas and New Year.

    But Christmas was only merry for Europeans who could afford such lavish expenditure. But few realize that Calcutta also had a large ‘underclass’ of Europeans who lived in genteel poverty and struggled to get on. On December 25, 1788, the Calcutta Gazette wrote: “Merry, Merry Christmas will be echoed in every part to the joy of all good Christians, and the sorrow of none but the poor fagged bearers whose exclamations will not be so cheerful…” On 18th December 1800, it was decided to establish “a charitable fund for distressed Europeans” out of the collections made on Christmas and Easter. The Bank of Hindoostan was made treasurer of this fund.

    But the assistance from the fund came with a number of riders. Europeans “unauthorized” to stay in India could not avail the fund; the financial assistance it offered was available to only those who were unemployed and yet too distressed to remove themselves to Europe. The managers of the fund were also closely instructed to enquire into the background and condition of the relief claimants so “that the subscribers will have the satisfaction of knowing that their benefactions are well applied”. In 1802, Rupees 3,258 was collected on Christmas day as part of this fund to “relieve distressed Europeans”. The funds were disbursed among 39 widows of Europeans pensioned and among 106 “native Portuguese”.

    Back in the early colonial days, Christmas was not celebrated by one and all as it was a festival of the elite. Today, the entire city gets into the spirit of the season, with Kolkata decked in fairy lights, steamers, X’Mas trees and Yuletide cheer all around.

    On that note, a very Merry Christmas to readers!


    Baijayanti Chatterjee currently teaches history at Seth Anandram Jaipuria College and is an old Calcutta enthusiast.

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