Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the birthday of the King of England were the three major festivals celebrated by the British inhabitants of Calcutta in the late 18th century. To the Indians, Christmas came to be known as Burrah Din (or Boro Din), literally a big day of celebration, similar to a Burrah Connah (Bara/Boro Khana), a large private/public dinner which was generally followed by a ball.
Apart from the British, several other Christian communities lived in the cosmopolitan city of Calcutta in the late 18th century. In addition to the British Anglicans, there were the Armenian, Syrian and Greek Christians of the Eastern Church. The Dutch, French, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish and even some of the English were members of the Catholic church. It is certain that these communities celebrated Christmas in their own unique cultural ways; the Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrated Christmas on a completely different day, the 6th of January, following the Julian Calendar. In this brief post, however, I will only focus on the official way of celebrating Christmas in 18th century Calcutta by the East India Company’s government with the help of two contemporary accounts: first, Augustus Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, arguably the first major English weekly newspaper in India, and second, a letter written by an Englishwoman named Mrs. Eliza Fay to her sister in England.
On 29th January 1780, Irishman James Augustus Hickey published the first volume of his normally four-page English weekly newspaper, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette or the Calcutta General Advertiser. Hickey was fiercely independent in his approach and soon his newspaper drew the ire of Warren Hastings, the contemporary (and the first) Governor General of Bengal. Hickey used the Bengal Gazette to criticize Hastings’ excessive spending on unnecessary military actions, personal excesses, and favoritism in the appointment of his friends and acquaintances to important and influential positions. He also critiqued Lady Hastings and Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of Fort William in Calcutta, who is known for passing the infamous judgment to hang Maharaja Nandakumar in 1775. Warren Hastings and Impey soon started using their influence and power to close the newspaper down and lock Hickey up. In June 1781, Hastings filed a defamation suit against Hickey and Chief Justice Impey sentenced him to two years in prison and a Rs. 2000 fine (about Rs. 200,000 in modern value). However, much to the disgust of Hastings and Impey, Hickey somehow continued publishing the Bengal Gazette despite being imprisoned. Eventually, in March 1782, Hastings shut down Hickey’s press and confiscated the wooden type blocks. This was effectively the end of Hickey and his Gazette, and probably the first evidence of state-sponsored press-gagging in South Asia.
Apart from firing a continuous salvo of critiques at the Government, the Bengal Gazette published stories, poems, editorials, contemporary news from Calcutta and other Company territories in India, as well as, updates from Europe whenever the East India Company ships arrived. It also had a section for advertising events, auctions, and sales. Hickey’s description of Christmas in Calcutta comes from the Christmas of 1780. It is evident in the writing that his relationship with the Governor General and his colleagues had not yet gotten completely out of hand.
Monday last being Christmas Day, the morning was ushered in with the firing of guns. A breakfast was given by the Honourable Governor General at the courthouse, and at noon the most sumptuous dinner at which there were present many persons of Distinction. Several royal salutes were fired from the Grand battery at the Loll Diggy [Lal Dighi], every one of which was wash’d down with Lumba Pillans of Loll Shrub, and the evening concluded with a ball, cheer’d and enlivened by the Grand illumination and excellent band of Music. The Ball was honoured with the company of many amiable British ladies, and the lustre of their natural beauty, outrivalled the brilliancy of their Diamonds and rendered them useless.
Hickey’s Bengal Gazette or the Calcutta General Advertiser, January 1781
As this account describes, the Christmas Day celebrations in the 1780s included cannon salutes, sumptuous meals, fancy ball accompanied with music and tall glasses (lumba pillans) of Loll Shrub (red wine; from Lal Shaarab).
Eliza Fay’s Letter
Eliza Fay and her barrister husband Anthony Fay arrived in Calcutta in May 1780 after a long and eventful journey. She and her husband had landed at Calicut (in north Kerala) in late 1779 and were immediately arrested and incarcerated by Hyder Ali of the Mysore Sultanate. Early in 1780, a Jewish merchant named Mr. Isaac helped the couple execute a daring escape from Hyder’s prison and run to Cochin (Kochi), from where they took a ship to Calcutta. Her letters written to her sister in Glamorgan paint a vivid picture of life in early Colonial India in general and Calcutta in particular and remains an important historical source for the period. Within a year of her arrival in Calcutta, Fay’s husband fathered an illegitimate child and the couple divorced. Although Fay returned to England in 1782, she made three more voyages to Calcutta over the next three decades, trying her hand in many businesses. Unfortunately, all of her business ventures failed and she died bankrupt in Calcutta in 1816.
One of Eliza’s letters also describes the 1780 Christmas celebrations in Calcutta. It is tempting to speculate that Eliza might be one of the “many amiable British ladies” that Hickey met at the courthouse ball and supper, and later wrote about in his Gazette. Agreeing with Hickey’s descriptions about the gun salutes from the battery at the Lal Dighi (mod. BBD Bag), the lavish dinner, ball and supper, Fay’s letter presents even more observations.
The external appearance of the English Gentlemen’s houses on Christmas Day is really pleasing from its novelty. Large plantain trees are placed on each side of the principal entrances, and the gates and pillars, being ornamented with wreaths of flowers fancifully disposed, enliven the scene. All the servants, from the Banian down to the lowest menial, bring presents of fish and fruit; for these, it is true, we are obliged in many instances to make a return perhaps beyond the real value, but still it is regarded as a compliment to our burrah din.
She describes the Christmas decorations in the English houses with banana plants on both sides of the entrances and flowers for the columns, gates and windows. She also writes that there was a constant stream of house visits by the Indian business partners (Banians) and servants, who all brought compliments and signature Bengali presents of fish, fruits and perhaps sweets.
When their counterparts in late 18th century London were busy buying or baking Twelfth Night Cakes, preparing for their modest Christmas dinners and exchanging gifts, the English in India, 5000 miles away from home and in an entirely different culture, had to adapt. The above descriptions of the Christmas of 1780 provide good examples of this assimilation and adaptation. The English adapted the local Hindu tradition of using banana plants to decorate the entrances of houses, and flowers to decorate windows and gates for any religious or secular functions. The Hindus consider these decorations as sacred and believe that they will avert the evil eye and bring good luck to the family. On the other hand, their Indian business partners and servants accommodated Burrah Din in the calendar of festivals and brought presents to the English families, even though there was probably the expectation of a return gift or favor at a later point. Colonialism in India is not just a story of conquests, oppression, and looting, or of the unmitigated blessings of Western civilization. Above everything, it is a story of adjustment, assimilation, and knowledge creation for both the colonizers and the colonized. These two short accounts of the Christmas of 1780 in Calcutta provide a glimpse of these early attempts at assimilation and adjustment.