Kolkata’s Christmas is rooted in its colonial past as the second city of the British Empire when the city’s dazzling Christmas celebrations were the stuff of legends. Gone are the days of the Governor-General’s Christmas balls and early morning gun salutes followed by ‘lumba pealahs of loll shrab’ or fancy dress parties at The Belvedere where Father Christmas arrived on an elephant. Yet, there’s no dearth of charm and zesty enthusiasm when it comes to Christmas or Boro Din in Kolkata.
The city has its own string of Christmas traditions — a mix of the old and new — that make Christmas in Kolkata truly special. Add to it fantastic weather, and Christmas time is easily the best time to visit Kolkata. Of course, it’s a must that you go Christmas shopping at New Market, eat fruit cakes and mince pies from Nahoum’s and walk under the fairy lights illuminating Park Street. And if you’ve still not had enough of Christmas, here are a few other ways to enjoy the season in the city.
1. Double-decker bus tour
Brick-red double-decker buses are an enduring imagery of old Kolkata’s charms. These buses were phased out in the 1990s, deemed unsuitable for the city’s roads. But for a few years now, every winter the West Bengal Tourism Department has organised tours of the city aboard open-top double-decker buses that take you around some of the city’s historic areas and make pit stops at iconic locations like Eden Gardens and Princep Ghat. Hop on for a ride under the mild winter sun and soak up the city’s Yuletide spirit.
2. Go on a trail of Kolkata’s historic churches
Attending midnight mass at the St Paul’s Cathedral, or simply dropping by to spend some time on the Cathedral grounds on Christmas day is a Kolkata Christmas ritual. But in addition to St Paul’s, the city has a string of historic churches rich with stories and architecture. Make a stop at St John’s Church to admire the quaint architecture, see German painter Johann Zoffany’s painting of the Last Supper or visit the tomb of Job Charnock whose arrival on the banks of Hooghly set in motion the fate of this fabled city. Or admire the beautiful white facade of the 207-year-old St Andrew’s Church in BBD Bag. Attend midnight mass at the gorgeous two-spired St James’ Church, also called Jora Girja, on AJC Bose Road for a more intimate experience.
3. Check out the brand-new Alipore Jail Museum
Take a tour of the recently inaugurated Alipore Jail Museum. The historic 116-year-old prison is where some of the country’s greatest leaders, including Subhas Chandra Bose, had been incarcerated during the freedom struggle. A section of the prison has been refurbished and turned into a museum, complete with exhibition rooms, a souvenir shop and an INA-themed cafe. You can visit the gallows and the special cells that held the likes of Netaji, Nehru, Deshbandhu CR Das and others. They also offer a light and sound show in the evenings.
4. Enjoy a good old Kolkata-style picnic
A Boro Din tradition in Kolkata is to go for picnics — be it at the botanical gardens, the Maidan grounds or the Alipore zoo. The weather is usually fantastic and a day out in the open is a great way to reboot. But first, pack the quintessential Bengali breakfast hamper of bread, boiled eggs, oranges, Joy Nagarer moa and fruitcake crammed with cashew nuts, raisins and candied ash gourd. Or take it up a notch with some koraishutir kochuri and aloor dom. If you want to avoid the crowd, drive out of the city to picnic spots in the suburbs. Plan a cookout Al fresco style with friends and family for a typical Borodiner Choruibhaati.
5. Christmas dance at Bow Barracks
Bow Barracks—a cluster of red brick buildings with green fenestrations, originally built to house troops during World War I—is still a hub of the city’s Anglo-Indian population or what little remains of it. Come Christmas, revellers from around the city congregate here to get a taste of their unique, fun Christmas celebrations. Every year, the residents of Bow Barracks host a Christmas dance right on the street, under a canopy of fairy lights, where all are welcome.
6. Kolkata Christmas festival
Kolkata Christmas Festival is an annual gala organised by the state tourism ministry along with the city’s Christian community. In its ninth edition this year, it has an eclectic mix of buskers, performances by orchestras and church choirs as well as popular home-grown singers and bands. Everyone from Usha Uthup and Kamran Khurshid to Krosswindz has performed here. Plus there are numerous food stalls selling festive food from the kitchens of the city’s diverse communities.
7. Christmas on the Hooghly
Quite a few travel and events outfits in Kolkata organise Christmas cruises on the Hooghly where guests can party on the river in luxury boats or vintage cruisers. There’s everything from live band performances and magic shows for children to a big Christmas feast and the party’s own Santa Claus.
8. Enjoy a Christmas lunch at one of the city’s iconic restaurants
Be it quaint cafés, posh diners or luxury restaurants — eateries across the city serve up Christmas specialities which include everything from traditional favourites like spiced hot chocolate and whole turkey roast with all the trimmings to modern global platters replete with Christmas cheer. Book a table with family and friends and feast to your heart’s content. Or queue up outside one of Park Street’s vintage restaurants for a good old Calcutta Continental meal with a side of Christmas chaos!