Last year we shunned the Christmas turkey and made our way to the backwaters of Kerala, where we spent an unusually sunny festive holiday puttering about on a little boat between shockingly white sandbanks and hard-to-reach villages. Christmas morning was amazing: I spent it doling out jelly beans, the only present that I had brought for myself from the UK, into the sticky hands of screaming, smiling young children who lined the river banks. They waved madly as we glided past. It was a humbling experience knowing that a handful of easy-to-buy jelly beans could make these kids so ecstatic!
After we had navigated away from the network of shady-green villages, we found ourselves as far removed from a traditional Christmas Day as we had thought possible. We could smell the tangy scent of the salty sea, feel the heavy humidity seeping through our bodies, and the best Christmas present of all, could feel the Indian Ocean lapping small waves against our tiny white-washed wooden boat.
Google map: bit.ly/V6CCuw
The port of Cochin in Kerala is home to one of India's largest communities of Christians. Untroubled by Akbar the Great and his descendents, southern India took its influences from China, Africa and Europe. Vasco da Gama first arrived in Fort Cochin in 1498 and in 1524 returned to die on Christmas Eve. He was buried in the church of St Francis. This refreshingly unfussy building – the first European church to be built in India – still stands amid the banyan trees and cricket greens of Fort Cochin (unlike Vasco da Gama whose remains were removed to Portugal).
Like any UK high street, outlets selling tasteless decorations mushroom all over the city from the end of November. In the Yuletide run-up Cochin buzzes with pre-Christmas shopping euphoria. Several times I have been pushed out of the way by sharp-elbowed nuns searching for the perfect Christmas tree bauble along Broadway in Ernakalum's market area. Unlike the UK it's always a festival atmosphere and it is not uncommon to be offered a high-spirited Keralan welcome and cup of tea in the middle of the scrum.
From the 24th December Fort Cochin ratchets up the party with a seven day carnival. Expect fireworks every night (and sometimes in the day), elephants, dancing, games, food, general revelry and more fireworks!
NOTE: I've been based here for 18 months and have only ever heard it referred to as Cochin by the locals. Nobody uses Kochi except in correspondence.
Fort Cochin (also Fort Kochi) and Ernakalum, Kerala, India
Google map: bit.ly/rYaskG
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