Opinion: Christmas, Santa Claus and Goan Christians in Pakistan

Written By: Donna Fernandes
Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan Updated: Dec 27, 2017, 12:12 PM(IST)

Traditional family lunches and dinners continue in homes, and many restaurants, upscale hotels and eateries offer Christmas specials. Pic Courtesy: Donna Fernandes Photograph:( Others )

Enter Bohri Bazar through the middle street across the Nimco shop in Saddar and you will see a multitude of people trying to strike deals with shopkeepers for a reasonably priced and sized Christmas tree. In these shops, you will also find everything needed for decorating trees and homes ahead of Christmas day. 


Over the years, Saddar became home to many Goan Catholic community members. In Saddar is situated the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, other community affiliations, including the Karachi Goan Association, Goan Union Hall and the now lesser well-known Portuguese Club. The locality had some of the city’s oldest and well-known Goan bakeries. 


These days between December 10th -20th, many Christian families avail the free baking service offered by United Bakery. The freshly mixed batter is taken to the bakery and customers are informed about pick-up times. United Bakery and J.C. Misquita Bakery also sell a range of traditional Christmas sweets from almond and walnut toffees to marzipan and Goan traditional sweets, such as neuris (semonlina and coconut filled pastries) and kulkuls (curled and fried snacks).  


There is no doubt that these can ever be compared to those made in a Goan Catholic home where each participating family member are assigned roles. They cut bits of dried fruits for the rum-infused cake, kneading cheese straw dough or constantly stir toffee on the stove top to maintain its right consistency and never leaving the deep frying heated wok empty without the next round of rose de coque. Crispo and J.C. Misquita bakeries have crowds queuing to take home dozens of hot cross buns during the Holy Week. Likewise, the demand for Christmas cakes and sweets is placed ahead of time before orders close. 


For many Christian families in Karachi, Christmas begins with the season of the Advent, and preparation for the birth of Christ is encouraged spiritually. The season also kicks in with Christmas plays at local charities and churches along with parties for children and Carol nights for all. 


Midnight mass services across the city these days have heightened security. In the past, very many Catholics would be spotted with their non-Christian friends at a bi-lingual midnight mass. “We don’t keep out anyone, all we do is request ahead of time that everybody carry their CNICs. It just helps with identification and we already get people to pass through security checks,” says one of the security personnel at a church located in Cantt. The uncertain security situation gives rise to different policies applied by different churches.


A few others on Christmas Day can be seen at the Gora Qabaristan (Christian cemetery) to visit deceased loved-ones. However, traditional family lunches and dinners continue in homes, and many restaurants, upscale hotels and eateries offer Christmas specials. Agha’s, a high-end store located in the Clifton area, annually sells uncooked turkey. While most families opt for cozy home-cooked meals, the Goan community members are often seen picking the best cuts from their butchers. 


A must-have at most Goan homes is sorpotel. This dish consisting usually of finely chopped beef along with liver and a selection of organ meats is cooked in a spicy gravy with vinegar. If you are lucky to have a Goan friend still around in Karachi then grab a bite of the divine vindalo. Cooked with cumin, ginger, garlic, and chillies as essential ingredients make for the scrumptious red masala (spiced curry) with pieces of any choice of meat and significant amounts of vinegar. In Konkani dialect spoken by the Goan community, ‘vin’ means vinegar and ‘alo’ means garlic. 


But the real treat it to witness a Konkani theater play at the Karachi Goan Association or hear some of its actors sing hymns in Konkani. 


In post-independent Karachi, a host of multiple apartments was purchased by Christian families where traditions of Christmas parties, dances, winter bonfires, and food fairs continued within their navigable compounds. To this date, some of these apartments including the cooperative housing societies in Saddar and Doli Khatta are beautifully decorated with Christmas festive lights, a huge star or two, and the nativity scene. The popularity of these buildings for their decorations through the 1980s until the mid-1990s was an open invite for just about anybody with a camera or a child when building security rules were loosened. 


For adolescent carol singers in the 1990s, these buildings felt like 777 winnings and a bonus feature for a cutely dressed Santa as they went knocking door to door. Even marginalised members of Karachi’s transgender community were then spotted inside these buildings eager to celebrate Christmas cheer. They developed a taste for what they referred to as papri but were Goan Christmas treats of voras (deep fried savory flour crispies) and neuris (deep fried sweet coconut dumplings).


Karachi is experiencing a dramatic transformation in the number of Goan Catholic families. Konkani is now rarely heard in the markets of Saddar among folks buying the catch of the day. This large loss of cultural diversity for Karachi is no hidden shame. It is well-known by the country’s consistent shrinking space for minorities and, especially, that felt by the Christians after Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder. It now may seem strange that this vibrant community, driven by self-interest, opted to move to Karachi which was the greener pastures of the 1800s. 


I tried giving this deep thought by recalling why hope reigned even in the 1940s and 1950s for Goan Catholics migrating to the port city. But I failed, as Christian values and self-interest appear at odds. For I know that Goan Catholics will always cherish service and societal contributions even if their fellow countrymen have reaped gains in education, hospitals, music, and other avenues with only too few acknowledging it. However, it does leaves me wondering whether the present bits of existence will be able to revive the richness of Goan culture as I recall the voice of legendary musician and a dear friend of my parents, (late) Allan Goveas’ song, “Pakistan Forever”. 


At the same time, I hope this reveals an opportunity for the government to work together in preserving the value and contributions of this once vibrant community. I wish a peaceful Christmas in Pakistan and that more of my non-Christian friends’ palates knew of Lawerence bakery’s prawn patties, P.F. Pereira’s hang out for bunking Sunday service, and dances on the floors of Paradise Hotel. 


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).


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