While ISKCON’s culture and spiritual traditions hail from ancient India, many of our members live in Christian countries, come from Christian backgrounds, and send their children to Christian schools.
As a result of unavoidable interaction with the larger culture, many ISKCON devotees assimilate and participate in at least a small part of its practices—one of the greatest of which is, of course, Christmas Day.
This Christmas, devotees at the ISKCON temple in Washington D.C. will offer Poinsettia, the traditional Christmas plant with its green and flaming red leaves, to their deities. A symbol of recognizing the culture they grew up in, this small gesture also gives a nod to an instruction by Vaishnava saint Rupa Goswami, in his Nectar of Devotion, to “Offer fresh fruit and grains to Krishna, according to the season.”
In Hungary, devotees at the New Vraja Dhama farm will dress Radha-Shyamasundar in the traditional Christmas colors of deep red with furry white edges, just as they do every year.
But it’s probably in Ireland, the Land of St. Patrick and, at least until the recent consumerism craze, one of the most Christian countries in the world—that devotees acknowledge Christmas most elaborately.
Maha-mantra Dasi, the woman behind the annual “Vaishnava Christmas” on Northern Ireland’s island temple Govindadwipa, moved there back in January 1986. Her life’s service was set almost immediately, as she began helping to sew outfits for the presiding deities Radha-Govinda six months before they were even installed.
Tragedy struck Maha-mantra’s life soon after, when her three-year-old daughter passed away. Directing her desperate need to express her maternal instinct to Radha-Govinda instead, Maha-mantra began to serve them devotedly as their pujari (priest).
For the next twenty-four years, she woke the deities in the morning, fed them, bathed them, dressed them, and made their clothes—all the things she could no longer do for her child. And since Ireland was often short of pujaris, she also went beyond her official service, cooking, making sweets and dressing the deities at night. Radha-Govinda were, and are, Maha-mantra’s life.
“I did move to Belfast for a six-year period early on in my service, to take care of the Radha-Madhava deities there, although even during that time I continued to sew Radha-Govinda’s outfits,” she says. “One winter in Belfast, my mother gave me some money and asked me to make a Christmas outfit for Radha-Madhava. It was normal for Krishna to dress in every color, so I thought why not? and used the donation to make the deities a red and green outfit. To go with it, I tied cuttings from a fir tree around the altar and decorated it with lights and tinsel.”
It was the early makings of a tradition. Years later, back on Govindadwipa, Maha-mantra noticed a photograph of Radha-Shyamasundara in New Vraja Dhama, Hungary on Christmas Day. When she saw that they were wearing a red outfit with white furry borders, she concluded that the dress must have been authorized by the senior ISKCON management there. And on Christmas Day 2001, she created a similar outfit for Radha-Govinda.
Maha-mantra had always been a creative festival decorator, making animals, nature scenes, gopis and cowherd boys to join Radha-Govinda on the altar. Christmas Day was no different. “I covered the altar with fluffy white cloth that looked like snow, and made a big snowman wearing a harinama chaddar, offering incense and ringing a bell,” she says. “I even had devotees make a big reindeer pulling a sleigh, which was set up on the altar so that it looked like Radha-Govinda were on it.”
At the foot of the altar lay a large sack of presents, which Maha-mantra drew visiting devotees’ attention to by sticking a note on the temple room door. The note read: “What’s in Govinda’s sack? Find out after the kirtan.”
The small gathering of devotees were in for a truly heartwarming holiday surprise. Maha-mantra had bought presents for each one of them, and a devotee dressed as Santa Claus gave them out—a beadbag to one devotee, a Krishna calendar to another, a Vrindavana parikrama video to yet another. As “Santa Claus” handed the presents out, he read aloud a short poem that Maha-mantra had written about each devotee, praising their devotion and good qualities.
After word of mouth had spread about 2001’s festivities, the turnout in 2002 increased significantly. “It’s quite a job to compose a poem about everyone who might turn up,” Maha-mantra says. “Often people would arrive in the middle of the proceedings and I would have to run to my room to find more presents and compose a poem for them on the spot. It was very stressful, but great fun!”
Every year, more and more devotees began to visit Govindadwipa for Christmas Day. To alleviate some of the pressure from herself, Maha-mantra changed the structure of the gift-giving ceremony. Now whoever got the first present had to take the next one from the sack, give it to the devotee it was intended for, and say something nice about them.
Maha-mantra also added a “Christmas Book Distribution Tree.” “The scores of Ireland’s December Marathon for distributing Prabhupada’s books are usually read on Govindadwipa at Christmas time,” she says, “So I decided to write the names of each participating book distributor on star shapes and hang them on a Christmas tree. A photograph of the top-scorer went at the top of the tree, where a fairy or angel usually sits.”
This year, Maha-mantra is planning the same schedule as in previous years. “Everyone has really liked what we’ve done so far, so why change it?” she says. “In fact, although temple Christmases are not familiar to most devotees, we’ve only ever had one complaint, the first year in 2001.”
The objection came from a devotee who overheard Maha-mantra asking his wife, also a pujari, to buy red velvet cloth. “You’re not going to dress the deities in anything Christmasy, are you?” he said, promising that he wouldn’t come to Govindadwipa over Christmas time if they did.
Regardless, the Christmas outfit was made, and the holiday gathering went ahead anyway. Maha-mantra sent the objecting devotee two Christmas presents, including a carrot from the Vaishnava snowman’s nose.
Incensed, he contacted various senior devotees to complain. One agreed, but the devotees’ own spiritual master told him not to be silly, saying, “What’s the harm, anything that enthuses the devotees to come together and have kirtan is good.”
Although he had understandably objected to something that seemed untoward to him, the devotee was a deeply spiritual and humble person, and approached Maha-mantra to ask for forgiveness. The following year, he visited Govindadwipa on Christmas Day and begged for some “Christmasy service.” Maha-mantra gave him the part of gift-giver, which he has played every year since.
“Nobody else has ever complained about our celebrations,” she says, “Including senior devotees Lila Sukha Dasa and Kavicandra Swami, who has attended our Christmas several times.”
For Maha-mantra, celebrating Christmas is just another way for her to serve Radha-Govinda and to show her love for them and the devotees. She quotes verse four of Rupa Goswami’s Nectar of Instruction, saying, “Offering gifts in charity and accepting charitable gifts are two of the six symptoms of love shared by one devotee and another. So why not do it on Christmas Day?”
She explains further, “Over the years I’ve been inspired to make nice scenes on the altar on festival days, and whenever I go shopping I am on the lookout for anything which can be dovetailed in Radha Govinda’s service. If Radha Govinda and Their altar can attract our minds and hearts, then there is less of a chance of other unwanted things attracting us.”
In Ireland, as in most Western countries, Christmas is a holiday time when devotees have time off work just like everyone else, and their children have time off school. It’s also held as a time to spend with family—but for devotees it may not always be the best idea to drop by and see their families when they could be in the middle of a dinner of, as Maha-mantra puts it, “unmentionable things.”
“Still, devotees needn’t feel alone and isolated on Christmas day—we are a big family,” she says. She explains that between Srila Prabhupada’s Disappearance day and Lord Nityananda Appearance Day, there are a few quiet months without any Vaishnava holy days—so Christmas is a good excuse for devotees to get together in between festivals.
“Most devotee children are also going to public school these days, and it’s nice for them if they don’t feel left out of the biggest festival in the outside world,” Maha-mantra says. “Only unlike their classmates, they can do it in a Vaishnava way that doesn’t cause pain to any other living creatures.”
She concludes: “The increased turnout at the temple, singing Krishna’s name together, exchanging Krishna conscious gifts, and praising the devotees can only mean our Hare Christmas is a good thing. Ho, ho, ho!”