Best gift ever

The baby Jesus’ Indian birthday party

Traveling alone through India a few years ago, I felt independent and adventurous. Then Christmas arrived, and I felt nothing but homesick. After months of backpack living, I longed for family dinners, opulent Christmas trees and familiar carols. Desperate for merriment, I accepted an invitation to Christmas midnight mass in a seaside Goan village, though I’m not Catholic and I couldn’t understand the priest’s Konkani sermon. I watched the congregants for cues to stand or kneel in my crisp new salwaar kameez, and then politely said goodbye.

Outside, I was surprised to find the courtyard ablaze with gold and pink lights. Smartly dressed Indian women offered cake and cups of sugary coffee. Santa Claus led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to baby Jesus. Fireworks exploded overhead. A DJ spun Punjabi pop for dancing adults and children twirling in dizzy circles.

Suddenly, Santa pulled me out of the crowd and up the church steps. A priest announced I was to battle a bald Russian tourist in a timed banana-eating contest—a tradition for foreign guests. A crowd of locals eagerly watched as a large tray of bananas was set before us. It was 3 a.m. and I had a belly full of cake, but who was I to mess with tradition?

Unfortunately, I laughed so hard, I only choked down two bananas. Russia easily took the title. (Sorry, America.)

Like all great presents, my pathetic fruit consumption was a gift that kept giving. Weeks later, villagers still greeted me by shouting, “How many bananas?” After feigning disappointment, they continued the conversation. Those bananas transformed me from a tourist into a friend.