BEYOND THE BEACH

The Christmas and New Year season in Goa is not just about
seaside parties. It’s about traditional theatre, cuisine and lots of
cheer, says Nolan Lewis

Goa features prominently on the list of the world’s most ‘Christmassy’ cities. This is no winter wonderland; but with stunning centuries-old cathedrals and churches, cherubic choirs singing carols, sumptuous festival feasts and quaint Portuguese villages festooned with glimmering fairy lights, Goa offers a unique holiday experience.

In the 16th century, when the Portuguese had their headquarters in Goa, the atmosphere was so vibrant that people would often say, “he who has seen Goa, need not see Lisbon”. Today, you get to see Portuguese influences at Fontainhas, which was once the residential neighbourhood for the colonial administrators. Walk around and admire the colourful old Portuguese homes here.

Twelve days of Christmas

The Christian calendar marks the season as a 12- day occasion beginning from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Three Kings on January 5, and not ending on New Year’s Day as most of us would like to imagine. Hunting for trinkets to decorating the family Christmas tree and shopping for presents to place underneath it is done weeks in advance, so most décor stores and bakeries light up at the start of December.

With regards to Christmas decorations, if faux isn’t your style, then head to the capital, Panjim. In the vicinity of the churches and the many markets are temporary stores that sell everything that could be mounted on your tree – from tinsels, cut paper snowflake patterns, glass ball ornaments and poinsettia corsages to Christmas star lanterns and pine cone wreaths that can be hung on the front door. If you’re especially fussy, head to 18th June Road, and look for a heritage boutique called Heirlooms for traditional hand-crafted décor items.

Goan theatre and folklore

Last year, the tiatr, a dramatic art form unique to Goa, celebrated its 125th anniversary. This old theatre art predates the era of television, when the most important form of entertainment in Goan villages was to come together in the evening to watch a Konkani play. A tiatr unravels itself in a series of acts called pordhe and is accompanied by songs called kants. You could fall off your seat laughing at a funny show playing at the Ravindra Bhavan auditorium in Margao or the Kala Academy in Panjim.

If you’re a theatre buff, another small pleasure you could indulge in is watching the nativity scene being enacted by children at a local school or at a church before the midnight Mass. It still is an honour of the first order for a parish to select a child to be part of the ensemble cast! The nativity scene follows the birth of Lord Jesus in a manger, after his parents Joseph and Mary are denied lodging at Bethlehem’s many inns. Finally, an innkeeper, seeing that the pregnant Mary is due any minute, allows them to rest in the stable. Meanwhile, an angel announces to shepherds nearby of the birth of a saviour and the Three Wise Men follow a brilliant star that halts right above the stable. Walk around the streets and see the nativity scene that are assembled in a crib outside every Christian home with idols of newborn Jesus and his parents, surrounded by cute barn animals, shepherds and the Wise Men.

Yuletide celebrations

Irrespective of whether you choose to attend the midnight Mass or Misa de Galo (Cock’s Crow) as it is known in Portuguese colonies, you must go on a Christmas Eve church walk! Goa’s churches boast awe-inspiring architecture, but the sights and sounds of the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church in Panjim and the Basilica of Bom Jesus blanketed in kaleidoscopic lights, with choirs crooning melodious Christmas carols are surreal. It adds to the festive spirit that everyone appears prim and proper in suits, ties and church dresses, as they walk to a parish.

After the solemnity of the Eucharist (a ceremony commemorating the Last Supper from the Bible) is when the celebrations kick off! While families go home to exchange gifts and enjoy a quiet supper, youngsters head to Christmas balls held at Clube Nacional in Panjim, Clube Harmonia de Margao in Margao and Emerald Lawns in Parra! These parties beginat 2 am and continue till 7.30 am with the audience jiving, waltzing and foxtrotting,while a live band doles out retro hits with trumpets, saxophones, guitars and tambourines. In an age of nightclubs, these vintage events still have an old-world charm.

The highlight of the Christmas Day is not dinner but the family lunch. Odette Mascarenhas, the “culinary queen of Goa,” as she is affectionately called, a cookbook author and food critic, says that suckling pig roast with an apple in its mouth, and not roast turkey, forms the centerpiece at the table. For starters, it is forminhas or canapés with tuna filling. The main course includes vindaloo and sorpotel (spicy-tangy red meat curry) with sannas or slightly sweet rice cakes, Goan-style fish mayonnaise, chicken cafreal, prawns on skewers with poi (a local bread) and pulao on the side. Plum pudding for Christmas dessert is another misconception.

Goans usually prefer bhaat, a semolina and coconut cake with caramel custard. Neighbours and friends drop in before lunch to exchange kuswar — 22 varieties of sweets and savouries such as nevreo (deep-fried savouries filled with coconut, jaggery and dry fruits), kulkuls (glazed curls), shankarpali (a fried dessert), bebinca (Indo-Portuguese pudding) and mandare (a sweet papad made with rice and pumpkin). While every luxury hotel in Goa has its own variation of a Christmas buffet, they tend to be clichéd. The best would be if you get invited to a family get-together. If not, head to chef Fernando’s Nostalgia in Raia, a restaurant dedicated to preserving and promoting Goan Portuguese food traditions. For desserts, bakeries like Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, Mr Baker 1922, A Pastelaria and Felicidade will appease your sugar craving. Calling 2018 a wrap! Through the season, it’s pleasant to sail through the Mandovi river on a sundowner cruise on board a luxury yacht.

The route starts from Britona, weaves through Chorão and Divar Island, and returns to the starting point. The coastline looks scenic, with the Indo-Portuguese villas and churches twinkling with Christmas lights. On New Year’s Eve, you could visit the nightclubs or attend a more intimate bonfire and barbecue on the beach and watch the sky light up with fireworks! All across Goa, locals burn effigies of Old Man Gloom, symbolising the year gone by.

The author is an ardent traveller and the views expressed in this article are his own

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