While Christianity likely came to India as early as A.D. 52, when St. Thomas is believed to have evangelised and been martyred in the southern parts of the subcontinent, Christmas as such did not arrive until European colonists and missionaries arrived in the 1500s and following.
Today, there are some 24 million Christians in India, most of them concentrated in the northeastern hill country, the tiny coastal state of Goa, and in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This only amounts to 2.3 percent of India’s 1.5 billion or so people, however, and Christmas is barely celebrated at all in central and northern India. Nonetheless, Christmas is kept in the areas with large numbers of Christians and is even celebrated by non-Christians living in those regions.
For Roman Catholics in India, and even for some of other denominations, midnight Christmas Eve services are highly traditional. After mass, a large feast will be enjoyed by the congregants, including authentic Indian curry dishes, and gifts will be exchanged. Many churches also decorate their premises with poinsettias and make the midnight service a candlelight service.
In South India, instead of Christmas lights illuminating houses, small clay lamps are often laid on rooftops (which are usually flat) to represent Jesus as the Light of the World. In Northwest India, the Bhil ethnic group go carolling to neighbouring villages for a whole week to retell the story of Christmas in song to all they meet.
In heavily Catholic Goa, celebrations are greatly influenced by Portugal, which once owned the state as its colony. Nativity sets are seen at nearly every Christian house in town, and large, star-shaped paper lanterns are put out to be seen by passers-by and remind them of the star that once brought the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus.
Here is also a tradition of making large amounts of sweets in a “consuada” just before Christmas and then delivering them as gifts to neighbors. Traditional sweets include: Christmas fruit cakes, “neuros,” which are small fried pies stuffed with dried fruit and coconut meat, and “dodol,” which is a kind of toffee treat infused with coconut and cashews.
Homes of those celebrating Christmas in India will often have “Christmas trees” of sorts, but they will probably be ornately decorated banana or mange trees. Mango leaves may also be seen in other decorations around the house. Santa Claus, often called “Father Christmas,” makes it to India to reward children with presents, provided they were well behaved the previous year. However, he delivers these gifts, not in a reindeer-pulled, flying sleigh, but in a horse-pulled cart.