The Spirit of Christmas - With Varsha Reddy and Erica Benedetto

Come December and the preparations for one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the world – Christmas – begin in earnest. From the trees being decorated, to the purchasing of gifts, lighting up of one’s house, and even preparations for the lip-smacking delicacies, the world is getting ready for the big day. While some prefer to celebrate Christmas with family and friends in the comfort of their homes, others prefer to spend it in church. Many also like to spend this time travelling to different cities and countries to soak in the most of the local culture. When all’s said and done, it’s a time of merriment and joy.

While Christmas is celebrated around the world, some countries have their own unique approach to the festival. For instance, in Serbia, the tradition is not to give presents on Christmas Day, but on the Sunday before it. And what’s unusual is that, as part of the celebration, children tie up their mum and dad, who in turn have to pay a ransom in the form of gifts to be freed. In Germany, Austria, and some parts of Switzerland, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a devil-like character as a warning to children not to be bad. Meanwhile in Ukraine, the locals decorate their Christmas trees with spider webs, owing to a legend that says a magic spider stopped over at a poor family’s house on Christmas and turned the cobwebs in their home into gold and silver. This week, as we do every year, You & I highlights a few families from the city, and their special take on Christmas.   

Varsha Reddy

Although Varsha is a Telugu girl, Christmas to her is all about positivity, good food, and lots of gifts. It’s the fairy lights and pretty decorations she likes most about the festive season. It’s the mix of new lights and fresh decorations mixed with the old-world that gives a feeling of warmth and happiness, according to the part-time model and full-time business development manager for a Canadian university. “When the tree and other decorations are up, everyone knows that Christmas is near. And this is enough to brighten even the gloomiest of moods,” says Varsha, adding that this is when all her family – including chachas, mamas, and cousins – gather at her place for a big feast like one big happy family. And that’s what the festive season is all about!

This year, Varsha explains that most of her family is travelling during Chrsitmas time. But fortunately, she has been invited to many of her friends’ places. A foodie at heart, Varsha calls food and desserts her best gifts ever. And luckily for her, every year she receives heaps of chocolates in many shapes and sizes on Christmas Eve. So it’s a great time for her.

Finally, talking about the Christmas delicacies, she says, “My mom has always made sure to bake a cake on Christmas Eve. And I wait a whole year for Christmas to eat that one particular cake she makes. There is always something special about the Christmas cake my mom bakes.

Erica Benedetto

An Italian who was raised on Long Island in New York, Erica is currently working as a counsellor at the International School of Hyderabad. Someone who’s always on the go, she enjoys yoga, music, reading, travelling, camping and is very passionate about animals, the mountains, the lake, the beach, and of course, all of her students!

Although she is not particularly religious at this point in life, Erica was raised Catholic and hence Christmas for her is all about being with the family. It is all the more special to her now that she lives away from them, and this is the only time she gets to be with all of them together. She spends Christmas Eve, year after year, with her father’s side of the family—this, she says light-heartedly, “is the very large and very loud side”. She adds, “The day starts late at my cousin’s house. We eat seafood till we drop, then try really hard to make it to midnight mass (laughs)!” Christmas Day has always been at Erica’s house, she says, since it’s her mother’s favourite festival, and she and her mother (Erica’s grandmother) put their heart and soul into the preparations. For breakfast there’s the special
‘Eggs Benedetto’, which is Eggs Benedict with a little extra love on the side. Following this, the family opens presents together and then begin to prepare for Erica’s mom’s side of the family to come over, which is much smaller, but no less quiet.

What are the best Christmas gifts she’s ever received, we ask, to which Erica replies, “Every year my aunt buys me, my mother, and sister, tickets to see a Broadway play. The four of us get all dressed up, eat at a great restaurant, and enjoy the play. The Christmas season is so alive in the city and it’s our favourite present every year.”

A common figure in all of the Benedetto’s celebrations is the food! “The amount of food we consume during Christmas time is endless, and I love to eat so I dare say that the food is one of my favourite parts of the holiday,” she concludes.

Andrew, Van, Alex Viet Anh, and Arran Minh Duc Fleming

For Andrew Fleming, British Deputy High Commissioner to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Christmas is about spending time with his family and 86-year-old father. But aside from seeing family and close friends, remembering the spiritual essence of Christmas is important for the family. He says, “Owing to my job, my family suffers and do not see a lot of me at times. So during this time we try to be together as a family. This is also a time to take stock of the year, relax a little and think about what you can do differently or better in the year ahead.”  

Talking about the typical holiday foods, he says although turkey with stuffing is the traditional British dish, he doesn’t enjoy it much. Hence, his wonderful wife, Van, prepares a second roast so everyone has a choice. Apart from that, there’s roast potatoes, vegetables, and chipolata sausages. Dessert is always Christmas pudding.

This year the Flemings will be celebrating Christmas in the UK, and as always they plan to go to Midnight Mass. This is followed by a big traditional lunch on Christmas Day, when there will be an exchange of presents. Talking about his special plans for this year, Andrew says, “Time with my father is always special. Beyond that, do you want the exclusive? Well, I happen to know Santa will bring each of the family the special gifts they have asked for. It is my way of saying thank you to everyone for following me around the world.”

And his best Christmas gifts? “This time two years ago I got into Twitter in a big way. My handle is @Andrew007Uk, and the reason is that my wife bought me a mobile phone (Samsung 6) which takes super photos. Twitter has been a really useful tool in promoting my work in Nigeria and now in India.”

Dr Oli Tooher-Hancock and Mike Hancock

Although Oli and her family have lived overseas for 25 years, they always have a traditional British Christmas, complete with crackers, turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, and peppermint bark. It’s also a tradition in their home to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. Sharing what she enjoys most about the festival, Oli says, “Everything! I love that it is the season of giving and of goodwill. I love the countdown – decorating the house, buying gifts, singing carols, and listening to Christmas music.”

Head of the International School of Hyderabad, Oli has been in Hyderabad for five years and is thoroughly enjoying the city and living the school’s mission: ‘Leading our own Learning’. This year, the couple hosted their 25th ‘Mulled Wine and Mince Pie Do’ at their house (their fifth in Hyderabad), where they invited colleagues and friends.

“It’s the most special time for me and I try to keep the meaning of Christmas at the centre of all the festivities; so we will be at Mass on Christmas Day,” she said, when asked how Christmas is celebrated at their home. She added that her older son, Patrick, who is a student in Canada, is coming to Hyderabad for Christmas, and her younger son, George, and husband’s 85-year-old father will be here too.

When we ask what’s the best Christmas gift she’s ever received, she replies, “It has to be when Father Christmas came to our home when my boys were little. The look on their faces as they saw what Santa delivered was the best gift ever!”

Nitin, Karen,Kiara, Liam, and Kian Bhatia

The season of Christmas or Advent starts on December 1 for this family, who begin by putting up their tree and crib as a symbol of celebrating the birth of Christ. Karen explains, “We spend this month being aware of the true meaning of Christmas, which is about loving your family, sharing joy, being grateful, and helping others in whatever way we can. It is also a time when memories of loved ones who have passed flood back.”

It’s the get-togethers with family and friends that the Bhatias enjoy most. “For me it’s truly a time of joy and spending time and sharing the love with family and loved ones. I enjoy cooking the most this season, and sharing what I prepare with others.” Recalling her fond memories of the festival when her grandparents were alive, Karen says Christmas has always been about the love the family shared and the memories they made at their ancestral home. “My father took on the mantel of hosting the family Christmas dinner each year from his mother, and now I have done so from him,” Karen says. “The 24th is about Mass at midnight, followed by cake and wine and visiting close family. Breakfast with our immediate family and opening presents on Christmas morning is noisy and full of excitement. We have friends dropping in for cake and wine all day, and we end the celebrations with a big family dinner which I now host at home, with my father overseeing the traditional aspects.”
Karen’s family, the Campos, are known for their love of music, so together they sing carols and old family favourites. The large dinner spread consists of glazed ham, roast chicken, vindaloo, and some special Goan fare. While the desserts comprise rose cookies, kulkuls, and bibinca, all of which are must-haves, we’re told.

This year, too, will feature the big Campos family Christmas dinner. Karen plans to spend Christmas morning passing on old stories to her kids about their ancestors and traditions, and getting them involved in preparing Christmas dinner.

Neomi and Bakhita Francis

The young and bubbly Bakitha celebrates Christmas every year by going for Midnight Mass, dressed in her Christmas best. After mass, the family meets at one of their houses for a prayer, followed by Christmas cake, wine, and an exchange of presents. She tells us that Christmas day is preceded by two weeks of carol singing and other preps in church.

“It is a season of goodwill which is not a cliché because it’s more about giving than getting, especially giving to the poor and needy,” says Bakitha who’s into the social media marketing and PR field. Having the family come together to decorate the house, prepare the Christmas goodies, and relish the traditional Christmas brunch together, is the best part about the festival for her.

This year too, Bakitha and her family plan to rejoice with much fervour with a family reunion as some of her cousins are coming from the US. This one isn’t going to be just a day’s celebration though; it will be a lovely Christmas season. Mentioning about the food with much enthusiasm, Bakitha says that although her favourites are the turkey and chicken roast, meat loaf, and sausage pie, there are lots of other delicacies like plum cake, marzipan, guava cheese, marshmallows, chocolate fudge, and cinnamon snowflakes and stars that are prepared during this time. The homemade Christmas wine is also a speciality, she says. Concluding by telling us about some of her best Christmas gifts, the vivacious damsel says, “When I was a little girl, all my presents were memorable because
Santa Claus was very real to me as my grandfather dressed as Santa for many years.”


Gulzar, Dexter, and Blake Moss

For the Dexters, Christmas is celebrated with the entire family coming together for prayer and celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The house is decorated and a Christmas tree is put up, special lip-smacking delicacies are prepared, and ballroom dancing is performed. Although Gulzar is Parsi, she has celebrated Christmas with her parents ever since she can remember, and now she does so with her Christian husband and son. For them, the festival is all about spreading love, positivity, and happiness, and about giving and receiving gifts from family members. Gulzar explains, “The elder generation make delicacies like kalkals, rose cookies, puffs, Christmas cake, roast duck or chicken, barbeque, etc. We are all foodies, and Christmas is the best time of year to have authentic Anglo Indian food.” As part of the celebration, some family members also play Secret Santa, wherein you pick a chit with the name of someone to whom you must give a surprise gift. The person in turn has to guess who has given it.

Gulzar says that the festivities start with midnight Mass on December 24, after which they go home and open gifts and relish some delicious snacks and wine. The next 24 hours, she says, is only about food, music, dancing, singing, and making merry. She adds, “We also have the Christmas dance, a ritual where the entire community comes with their family and friends to dance! Anglo Indians are gifted dancers, they are born to dance and sway, and move like the breeze!”

This year is rather special for Gulzar and Dexter because their son turned three, and he’s super excited about Christmas now that the tree is up. Gulzar quips, “Each time the doorbell rings, Blake says ‘Oh mumma, I think that’s Father Christmas (Santa). So, yes, this year is very special as our baby is so excited. And we feel it’s the right time to inculcate the values and thoughts about Christmas in him.”

Pranati Khanna

She’s a singer and an artist and this time of year is super special for Pranati as it is a time of celebration with family and friends. On Christmas, Pranati and her family go carol singing with their fellow mates from Church, bake Christmas goodies, and have a special lunch, complete with delicacies like roast turkey, roast ham, and an array of desserts. Talking to us about what they enjoy most about the festival, Pranati’s mother, Ruth Khanna says, “It’s the sense of joy and anticipation. It’s the day Jesus was born and he is the most important in my life, so I’ve always enjoyed the celebration, especially because of the coming together of family and friends.”

Every year, Ruth bakes and cooks a lot of traditional Christmas goodies during Christmas time and sends them over to friends. They also decorate the house, but focus on taking Christmas out to people who are less fortunate. When asked what they have planned for this year, Ruth says, “I lead a Church called The Vineyard Outpost and we are going to have a Christmas Eve service from 10 pm to midnight. Then on Christmas Day we have a family lunch planned, with a traditional Christmas feast.”

Savita Date-Menon

She’s a psychologist who’s been practicing for several years in Apollo and Tata Hospitals, and Savita sees the significance of festivals. It is an investment in joy, a reminder to be with those near and dear, and above all, to be happy, says Savita. Like all festivals, Christmas is about joy. And it’s the festivity of lights and the colour red that she enjoys most. However, Christmas and its religious significance has been a part of Savita’s childhood, since she studied in a convent school. She recalls, “We were either actors on stage, or part of choirs in Christmas pageants in school. But today, the only thing left of that is the few carols I still remember. Today, it signifies holidays and family time, kids coming home for a break and togetherness.”

It starts with setting up the Christmas tree and decorating it with ornaments and lights. It also has all the trappings: rose cookies, kalkals, salted meat, stew and more, including the sock full of gifts for the kids. Savita says, “Christmas is a festival I have adopted, from my school, from my friends, and from Adrian, my husband. So for me, it is a festival of giving. I take my presents on Diwali!”