Bearded Ladies, Angels, and Sweat

A Memorable Christmas Eve in Kerala, India

I’ll never forget the soggy Christmas Eve I spent with new-found friends in Kerala, India in 2018. This post is from my travelblog.

After a night of caroling in Kerala–wet, but happy

Santa angel

I caught myself staring at a man/woman with a suspicious looking beard. It was painted on his/her face—a face that looked decidedly feminine.

Yeah, it’s a woman, I concluded.

And so were about half of the dozen or so costumed Josephs I saw milling about in Saint Sebastian’s Church outside of Chalakudy, Kerala. Joseph—as in Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus.

The family next door had told me we would go Christmas caroling after visiting the church. Oh joy—it had been ages since I had gone to church and gone Christmas caroling.

I dressed in my fancy silk tunic a tailor had stitched for me last year in Madurai. That was a mistake. Silk is an insulating material—I keep forgetting that—and so all the heat I was trying to cast off on this rainy tropical night was trapped next to my body. More about that later.

Reshma, the 23-year-old dentistry student and daughter of the woman next door who is my surrogate mom and chef, took me under her wing for the evening. “Don’t worry, I’ll always be with you. Tell me if you want to go back.”

No way, I declared. I was looking forward to singing Christmas carols, just as I did when I was a youngster. I planned to sing them loudly and joyfully, all in English, while presumably everyone else would sing in Malayalam.

Reshma’s younger sister, Dhanushma, was dressed in white and had giant cardboard wings. Sarath, their younger brother, told me he was to be Santa and hand out candy. Another white-frocked angel friend joined all of us as we rode in the family car to the church.

I still hadn’t put it all together.

There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Angels flitted about, holding up their wings and holding stars on a staff. White-balled Santa hats flopped around as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of Santas wore them, and I wore one, and some of the wise men wore them, and lots of other people dressed in red and white and sparkles also wore them. People held paper candles, and staffs with balloons attached, and a few people wore gold paper crowns. Some of those people had orange or blue flowing robes. One tall Joseph carried an infant bundle. A real live infant—all swaddled and cooing just like baby Jesus. Multiple Mothers Mary looked demure with blues shawls and downcast eyes. Several Santa Clauses with frightening tiny masks lurked about. Their distorted faces almost looked evil.

We filed into the church, lining up in thirteen rows, each row having from 30 to 50 people. It was a competition, I learned—the unit with the most participants won a cake or some such thing. My unit leader was happy I joined them—she was hoping my participation would help her unit win the prize.

The church was abuzz with excitement. And it was warm in there, with perhaps a thousand bodies, very warm. As I stood in line in front of Reshma, I felt sweat trickling down my back. I looked at the crook in my elbows. Wet. My silk top was wet at the elbows. Oh my. The whole side of my body was wet! And I wasn’t just wet, I was sopping wet. I had a shawl, so I spread it around, trying to cover my very obvious sweating, but there wasn’t enough material to do the job.

Drips tickled my back. And just kept dripping. I pulled my top away from the curve in my back so it wouldn’t soak up the sweat but instead allow the streams to soak into my pants. That ought to do it. Fans blew high overhead. Too high to help me. How could these people not sweat in this heat? I saw not a bead of sweat on anyone’s face.

“Your back is totally wet,” said Reshma, staring at me from behind. I wanted to melt away.

“How long will we be in here?” I asked, thinking, is there anyway I can get out of here?

Right about then a man came by and told me to go to the front. Father wanted to talk with me. Of course. I stuck out like a sore thumb. No hiding under my Santa hat.

“I’m here. Don’t worry, I’m here,” Reshma assured me. She was being so protective.

I had already met the priest several days previous, when my host, Mary, took me to meet him. A kind and soft-spoken man, he talked about writing a daily journal since 1989, and showed me the Hero’s Award he recently received for his tireless work to assist people during the flood four months previous.

I walked between the lines to the front of the church, in front of all those red and white costumed people, with my back and sides soaking wet. Obviously wet.

Father shook my hand and thanked me for participating. “Would you like to say something to the people?”

Huh? I’m all wet. Uncontrollably wet. I can’t address a thousand people on Christmas Eve in this giant cathedral while I’m wet.

“Oh no, this is your event, but thank you anyway.” I slunk back to my spot in line and reported back to Reshma.

I tried to distract myself and pulled out my camera, trying to get a few photos of all the excited faces while the priest began talking.

“It’s praying time,” Reshma warned me. In other words, stop taking photos. At least when they prayed, they wouldn’t notice my sweating.

After a few thunderstorms inside my top, the service concluded, and each unit followed each other into the pouring rain. Pouring rain not just inside my top, but from the sky.

“It never does this,” Reshma told me. Thanks climate change.

She had brought an umbrella big enough to hold over both of us.

“I don’t care about getting in the rain,” I said. My hair was a slick helmet—still wet from the bath I took earlier, from the rain, from all the sweat, from the tight Santa hat. But Reshma gallantly pulled me along, under her umbrella, out of passing traffic, out of water puddles. I wondered where we were going. Oh yes, the caroling.

We didn’t need to sing. The loudspeaker on the back of the vehicle preceding our line of angels and carolers blasted Jingle Bells and Twelve Days of Christmas and Deck the Halls and songs in Malayalam. When I moved close to the speakers, I plugged my ears with my fingers so my eardrums would not suffer damage.

We walked and walked, through the deluge. The angels trudged on. Despite the gloomy weather, everyone seemed in high spirits. They had done this every year since they could remember, and they would not be dissuaded by a little rain.

After what seemed like walking a mile, we paused at a house while Mother Mary and Joseph completed their assignment. Their job was to approach each house with the baby Jesus (in the form of a small image) and hand it to the occupants. Baby Jesus disappeared inside the house, where the people prayed over him, donated paper money, and returned him to Mother Mary. Donations went into a locked box carried by Sarath (he’d given his Santa job to someone else). Then Santa gave the house occupants candy and we moved to the next house.

“This is the first house we will visit,” Reshma informed me.

“How many houses will we visit?” I asked.

“Twenty-seven.”

My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open.

“How much time does this take?”

“About forty-five minutes,” she said. “Do you want to go back?”

“No, no, I will do this.” I was bathing in the rain and leaving soggy footprints. But I was much cooler than in the church.

I suspected forty-five minutes was an unrealistic time estimate.

We wound our way through the back streets, dodging mud bogs. I feebly tried to sing, competing with the electronic speakers delivering a relentless pounding through my body. I thought back to my younger years when I went caroling with my peers. We held candles as we approached houses and sang softly, and the old women would come to their doors and smile and thank us.

About the fifteenth house and a couple miles, the rain let up for good and Reshma folded the umbrella. She had stopped asking if I wanted to go back. I was determined now to finish this.

“Is the woman playing Mother Mary married?” I asked Reshma.

“Yes, she has two kids, too,” she said.

“And is the person impersonating Joseph a man or a woman? He/she looks like a woman.” The fake beard covered most of his/her face.

“Woman.”

“Well, I’m disturbed. Jesus was the result of a virgin birth, and Joseph was a man back then. And the Santa Claus handing out candy—how come he’s part of all of this?”

“Oh they’re all acting,” Reshma chuckled. That’s the way it’s always been done.

I didn’t make it to all twenty-seven houses. We were close to Reshma’s family home, where the event was to conclude, so I ducked out after about twenty-two houses, dashed back to my room, and changed my top that had turned into a second skin.

Nearly three hours after we were first dropped at the church, the parade of carolers made it to the last house, Reshma’s family’s house. Her family wanted me to witness when baby Jesus was presented for prayers, and they handed me a bill to place in the tiny manger for the infant.

I got to sing a Christmas carol. I do things in India that I would never do elsewhere. That Christmas Eve I sang. A solo. Into a microphone, and I sang one of my favorites, “Silent Night.” Just one verse, and the people didn’t seem to care one whit that I was flat in a couple places and couldn’t hit the high notes. They all listened to my quiet song and seemed to appreciate my participation in their special night.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” I belted into the loudspeaker.

I didn’t care if I was wet or not. It didn’t matter anymore.

2 thoughts on “Bearded Ladies, Angels, and Sweat

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