12/17/2020, 16.25
INDIA
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Christmas among the Dalits at Our Lady of Periyanayagi shrine

by Devasagaya Raj

Despite the poverty, families in Dalit villages contribute with their own money to church decorations and the crib. Unable to exchange gifts with others, they cook special meals for breakfast and lunch and share them with widows and the poor of their village.

 

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Father Devasagaya Raj, parish priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Periyanayagi, Cuddalore district (Tamil Nadu), is a former national secretary of the Office for scheduled castes/backward classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). Talking about Christmas during the COVID-19 pandemic among Christian Dalits in his parish, he explains that Christmas for them is a community celebration.

On 19 April, Fr Raj asked for help on Facebook to set up a soup kitchen at the shrine, which has handed out food to the elderly and the poor regardless of caste and creed. The latter are very grateful for the food provided by the priests, because they had no source of income during the lockdown. Fr Raj also provided some work at the shrine and gave money to families who lost their job because of the lockdown. He also handed out food and supplies.

Christmas for Dalit Christians in the villages is always centred around the church. Whether it is the Christmas season or an ordinary season, their houses remain same. For Christmas each family in Dalit villages contributes a share for the church decoration, the Christmas crib, etc. The youth of the village usually decorate the church and make the cribs. They use their creativity inspired by different themes every year.

Christians are only 2.3 per cent in India, but the birth of the God child always attracts people from other religions. Irrespective of caste, other believers visit the cribs and pay homage to the Child Jesus.

Starting on 1 December, children and youth conduct processions in the streets of their villages, singing bhajans. Christmas celebration in Dalit Christian homes is very simple. On Christmas day the children are sure to get a good breakfast with idly (idli)[*] or dosai (dosa)[†]; otherwise, they might go without breakfast or get simple rice porridge. In the afternoon, there will be meat.

Once a year people buy new clothes for Christmas. Since they are poor, they are not in a position to share gifts with others at Christmas. But since they are cooking a special meal for breakfast and lunch, they share them with the widows and poor of their village. They are quite happy and content with the light decorations of the Church and the crib. Thus, Christmas is a community celebration rather than a family celebration.

Konankuppam is a small village parish in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu. There are around a hundred Catholic families, 90 of whom are Dalit. The parish church was built by an Italian missionary, Fr Joseph Beschi, in 1720. It is a village shrine where many people from different parts of the state and neighbouring states visit, especially during the annual feast.

Most Dalit Christians are landless farm workers. Many work are migrant labourers in the cities.

D’Souza Arockiasamy, 25, was a migrant labourer and worked in a cake shop in Chennai for low wages. He lost his father, and his mother, Louise Sagaya Mary, is terminally ill. His unmarried sister, Jaya Arockiasamy, depends on him. He had to return to the village during the pandemic and has been without a job for the past eight months.

Without any savings, they have had to live hand to mouth for all this time. He is worried about the yearly new dress for his mother and sister, if not for himself. He is planning to get a loan to buy new cloths for both of them. Though he is facing hardships, he is planning to share his special chicken lunch with Hindu Dalit families who are living next door.

He is also member of the Tamil Nadu Catholic Youth movement where his sister Jaya is the secretary. All the youth are actively involved in preparing the crib, Christmas liturgy and church decoration. Thus, they feel that they can celebrate Christmas happily in spite of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 lockdown became a nightmare for the poor, especially the elderly who depend on the shrine and its pilgrims.

“Though the Church accommodates people, we need to inspire the faithful to help the needy,” said Fr Devasagayaraj. On 19 April he posted a plea on Facebook, seeking help to organise a soup kitchen at the shrine so that the poor and the elderly could be fed.

Since then, the shrine has handed out lunch to senior citizens and people who are poor irrespective of caste and creed. People were very grateful for the meal provided by the priests at the shrine, since they have not had any earnings since the lockdown. 

Fr Raj also provided some work at the shrine and gave financial help to people, especially families who lost their jobs due to the lockdown, in addition to providing them with dry rations and food.

(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article)


[*] A rice cake.

[†] A rice pancake.

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