One mid-December morning some years ago, Lallianzuala Fanai, 28, set out with nine other men on a hunt. After trudging seven kilometres of dizzying footpaths cut through the sides of a vertical cliff-face, the men found a clearing in the jungle and took position. Suddenly, they heard shuffling in the woods nearby, and then hooves rushing and receding. A small herd of deer had seen them and bolted.
The men of Thingsai village, close to Mizoram’s eastern border with Myanmar, had four days to either shoot down a large animal with the eight guns they had between them or snare several pheasants using traditional traps. If they failed, nine families would have no meat for Christmas. The Mizo community, almost entirely converted to Christianity a little over a century ago, has meat — pork, beef, gayal or, in some urban areas, chicken, fish or mutton — at the core of its Christmas feasts. “We rarely get to eat meat, many cannot afford to rear animals. So during a festival as important as Christmas, it is a tradition to eat meat at least a few times if not through the week till New Year’s. Cakes and biscuits do not excite us,” says Fanai.
Christmas cakes are a relatively new phenomenon in Mizoram, and only a minor part of the days-long feasting. Entire villages and even neighbourhoods in the capital Aizawl pool money, resources and labour to prepare a banquet that feeds more than a thousand people at a time. Although most neighbourhoods in urban areas have adopted the buffet style of feasting, in rural areas, it is still done the old way — several people sit on their haunches around a large plantain leaf or a large cane plate filled with rice, laden with a mix of various meats and vegetables and stew, and everyone eats from it together.
In Saiha in south Mizoram, the Christmas community feast is often hosted entirely by a few volunteer families. “Several families divide the task between them and they take care of all the meals during the day. The honour of volunteering usually goes to those who have lost a loved one that year. It’s like saying a collective farewell and paying respects to the departed,” said Rilie Solo, who belongs to Saiha town.
Looking back at the hunt, on the second morning, Fanai recalls how a wild boar came within a few metres of one among them. For hours, the man had been holed up in a niche on the hill-side. But his gun pointed in the opposite direction. As he quietly moved it to face the welcome visitor, the gun accidentally went off. The animal disappeared into the woods.
By the third evening, the men were anxious; the traps lay empty, the guns stood silent. Then, after dusk had fallen, the sound of a single gunshot echoed through the forest. A few minutes later, Fanai’s father emerged with a deer. A collective sigh of relief was heard. As tradition dictates, the men divided the meat into 10 parts (one each for the nine families the 10 men represented, and two parts for the successful huntsman who must share the spoils with close neighbours).
As Christmas approaches, and as early as November, villagers in many places set up traps on hillsides. In some other villages, people raise money to buy a sial, or gayal, a semi-domesticated bovine (a popular choice though it has become quite rare) for community feasts. The cattle-rearers bring them by the end of November and the animal is fattened up for the feast. Then, on Christmas eve, in almost a re-enactment of pagan rituals, village youngsters leave for the forest to collect plantain leaves and firewood. On their return, the boys tie wild-flowers on the sial’s horns, and the men lead it up to the village, setting it free as they enter. A chase ensues to catch the sial. “We run like mad. And when girls come out to watch, we overdo it a little,” says 30-year-old Lalrochhara Chhakchhuak of Sazep village, also located on the state’s eastern frontier.
The older Mizos gather at each other’s houses for an all-important task — to grind sticky rice in a large wooden mortar and pestle. Once ground, these are wrapped in plantain leaves and tied with vine in the shape of bricks. Then, they are boiled in a huge vat and set to cool overnight. Chhangban, the traditional Mizo bread, is made from sticky rice. Grown in a small allotment on their jhum farms, it is a coveted commodity — if a family does not have sticky rice during the Christmas season, they might even barter four kilos of plain rice for a kilo of sticky rice. If a young man is courting a woman and drops in at her house that night (when the chhangban is already cooked but not firm enough to be sliced into smaller pieces), he is offered the first helping — a show of affection by the girl’s family.
On Christmas morning, once the firmed-up pieces are unwrapped and sliced into smaller morsels, it is customary for families to eat chhangban with tea and lumps of jaggery, and offer it to any neighbour who drops by to greet the family. They take it along to church, to be shared with the congregation once the service is over. Fresh chhangban in one hand, sweet tea in another, the community comes together for a tea-party of sorts, as Christmas greetings resound around the church courtyard.