Merry in Kolkata

holiday spirit

Merry in Kolkata

It’s Christmas time in Kolkata! The weather is most appealing at the fag-end of the year, thus making it a perfect winter destination with guaranteed sunshine. No lazy afternoon stupor for its citizens, for the benign sun beckons even the lazy ones out in the open.

The erstwhile British capital for 150 years, ‘Calcutta’ may have become ‘Kolkata’ now, but there is no dampening in the festive spirit of Christmas. The celebration is not limited to churches, cathedrals or the Christian community there. The entire city makes it a social event to be enjoyed. Taking this cue, the West Bengal Tourism Department has been organising the Kolkata Christmas Festival since 2011.

With a lot of events lined up this year too (Dec 18-Jan 2), the celebration has become bigger, brighter and better. Whenever I am in Kolkata during Christmas, I head straight to the Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani), known as the Oxford Street of Kolkata. With its vintage charm, it’s the most happening place to visit for  revellers. And dotted with numerous iconic restaurants, it’s a heaven for foodies. A Christmas parade by school children is also scheduled at Park Street this year. You could have the jolliest of outings in the joyous din of music, chatter with family and friends, feasting on food, admiring Christmas displays and shopping for baubles.

For the last few years, the home-bred lighting expert Asim Dey illuminates the entire stretch of Park Street with multi-coloured LEDs. The steel scaffolds are used to build huge shimmering arches. Several amateur photographers can be seen with tripod stands to capture the illuminated street and its festive fervour. Some NGOs take this opportunity to spread awareness on social issues or collect fund for charitable institutions.

Several stalls spring up, giving more options of culinary delights for people to feast on — like duck roast, turkey, cakes and rolls.

While at Park Street, one should not miss visiting the legendary tearoom, Flurry’s, which had become an instant hit with the British and Kolkata elite when it was opened in 1927. Inside, the elegant patisserie’s shelves are decorated with Dundee cakes, plum cakes, fruit cakes, mince pies, puddings, Yule logs and chocolate cones. The place is stocked from floor to ceiling with cakes.

No wonder, even the cake-mixing ceremony a month prior to Christmas becomes an event at Flurry’s, where various dried fruits are mixed with fruit juices and rum. On Christmas Eve, the shop remains open the whole night and business is brisk.

You have to be in Kolkata during Christmas to fully comprehend the meaning of the idioms ‘to fly off the shelf’ or ‘to sell like hot cakes’.

Worthy wait

I had the opportunity to witness the cake mania when, two years ago, the 173-year-old bakery at Lalit Great Eastern Hotel opened after eight years. The nostalgic patrons waited in serpentine queues for up to two hours to buy their favourite cakes and cookies. I saluted their patience for I had been a little miffed by the jostling crowd at Flurry’s. With children in tow, I had made a quick exit with, of course, the nutty and fruity cakes. We had then followed the strains of music up to the Allen Park, which becomes the destination for all music lovers during Christmas, where renowned bands and musicians perform live.

The line-up for this year includes performances by the popular Geoffrey Rick, Saturday Night Blues, Plan B, Blue Mist, Shayne Hyrapiet, Gary Lawyer and Kamran Khurshid, and by English choir groups.

As the night advances, some of the crowd shifts to a more sombre and spiritual experience at St Paul’s Cathedral. The impressive Gothic building of 1847 is an Anglican church of the Victorian era, and is considered as the first Episcopal church of Asia. With its large stained glass windows and carved wooden benches, the spacious interior lends an ethereal feeling when it’s entirely lit up with candles during the midnight mass. It is packed to capacity even before the service starts at 11 pm. The next day, Christmas day service commences at 8.30 am.

One can feel the energy of a carnival on the day of Christmas. Whether it is the Alipore Zoo or Nicco Park; the malls, confectionaries, bakeries, restaurants, bars and shops; people throng everywhere.

Quieter corners

If all these noise and crowd become dizzying, visit the quiet lanes of Bow Barracks, the hub of the city’s Anglo-Indian community. The few blocks of reddish buildings with green wooden-slatted windows in central Kolkata come alive during Christmas. Its highlight being the food stalls set up by the community women, who offer homemade cakes, sausages and wine; and hundreds of children receiving snacks and gifts from Santa Claus who arrives in style in a rickshaw, and their musical evenings. A lot of children who have migrated abroad come home for they say no Christmas could equal that of Bow Barracks.

Another place to visit is the historic shopping destination, New Market. The 1874 Gothic Clock tower lends it the vintage charm.

Baubles, bells, trinkets, toy Santas, faux fir trees, reindeer headgear, fluorescent devil horns, Christmas caps, ribbons and festoons can been seen everywhere. For me, the shopping spree is incomplete without having a bite at an iconic bakery called Nahoum and Sons. Established in 1902 by Nahoum Israel, a Jew from Baghdad, it has since then been popular. Their Christmas plum and fruit cakes are most sought after.

As I quickly grab the last loaf of cake, the cherubic owner, Issac, who mans the shop, wonders how many cakes they should bake so no one goes empty-handed.

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