Agra: An abrupt fall in day temperature and foggy conditions did not deter merry makers who celebrated Christmas with vigour in the Taj city.

In most Christian homes, like in Padri Tola colony, the shining stars were put up with decorative lights. Some had little Christ figurines in the crib.

The chief centre of attraction remained the imposing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1848. It showcased a huge float depicting the little Babe of Bethelehem, his parents, the shepherds and the three wise men of the East along wih models of animals.

"Festivals these days have become truly national and all-community events," said Rajesh of Vidhyarthi Stores on Motilal Nehru Road.

"The sale of Christmas trees and customary cakes saw a sharp increase. The Xmas celebrations have taken a local flavour with sweets and cakes made of khoya," said Shishir Bhagat of the 250-year-old Bhagat Halwai establishment. "Our chaat stalls are crowded," he added.

According to Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, more than 70 percent of hymns and carols were now in Hindi. Even the rituals in the church have taken a local hue.

"A 'bhandara' was organised at St Peter's Church a few days ago," Sharma said. The midnight mass at the Cathedral and other churches draw the faithful from their sleep, heralding the Christmas celebrations.

Over years, Christians in Agra have embraced local hue and flavour. A sari-clad Virgin Mary under a peepal tree with St Joseph attired as an Indian farmer no longer surprise the faithful. Though the number of Christians in Agra has dwindled to just a few thousand, the interest in Christmas celebrations has increased.

The Taj city's Christmas tradition goes back to the early Mughals who participated in festivals of all faiths and allowed European missionaries and businessmen to settle down in Agra.

The Armenians from Central Asia had a sprawling colony and carried on their trade with local merchants during Akbar's rule. Long before British colonials chose Agra as the centre of their administrative network in the 18th century, Christian missionaries had set up base and were formally entertained by Mughal rulers. Emperor Akbar is said to have had a fascination for Christianity.

Church records say that in 1632, Emperor Shah Jahan defeated the Portuguese. Thousands of Catholic prisoners were brought to Agra and faced persecution. The emperor later relented but asked the Jesuit fathers to demolish the church. After a few years Shah Jahan again granted permission to rebuild the church.


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