Goa – A Beachy Christmas

It was almost sunset on Christmas Eve when the train from Mumbai reached our stop in Goa. This taxi ride painted a much different picture that we had seen in Mumbai. Weaving along the country roads to our beach hut hideaway in Mandrem, you could sense the festive air. Small fires dotted the roadsides while lighted paper and glass stars shone in every door. Scattered among the small market shops lining the road, a variety of churches showcasing elements of Portuguese architecture stood polished and ready for their midnight guests.


Goa is India’s smallest state and is positioned on the central west coast of India. Surrounded by mountains it is somewhat isolated from the rest of India and survived as a separate Portuguese colony up until 1961. Largely due to the Portuguese influences, a majority of the population is Christian contributing to its popularity as a Christmas destination — that is why we were there.


We reached our home for the next three days just after dark — a rustic free-standing bamboo framed and basket-weaved cabin on a tile-covered concrete slab. The mosquito net canopy draped above the large bed conjured up images of a bedroom that might belong to a maharajah — though this one was mostly utilitarian. The bathroom was larger than most hotels but only supplied the basics. It was not glamorous, but adored. Though some residents of Mumbai might consider it luxury.


Sitting down at the resort’s open air pavilion for Christmas dinner, we shedded our shoes and dug our toes into the cool sand. Deviating from the traditional fare, we savored authentic seafood curries and cautiously sipped frozen cocktails without ice.

After standing through last year’s Christmas service in Salzburg, we made an extra effort to arrive early this year. Pulling up to the church in Arambol, the village just north of Mandrem, we were struck by the beautiful white mission style building. The carefully crafted architecture contrasted sharply with the organic hodge podge of buildings prevalent in the surrounding area.


Heading toward the entrance and contemplating which door to use, we noticed the women filing in the left door and men lining up on the right. We followed suit. The seats were filled with Indians dressed in their Christmas finest. The girls in brightly colored and glittering saris, the men in shirt and tie.

A priest standing at the front appeared to be addressing the audience speaking what could have been Hindi — or Konkani. Had the service already started? What was he saying? People continued to pour in. Mostly Indians, but a decent mix of foreigners were sprinkled in. I wondered if any one else was American — India isn’t a top American travel destination.

As midnight approached it was apparent when the service started. The sharp cracking of fireworks outside in the night provided a backdrop for the gong-like bell marking the arrival of Christmas Day. The church was suddenly filled with music as a procession of choristers and musicians took their places at the front.

Attending a Christmas service in a foreign language is a contemplative experience. The music is enjoyable and you can easily follow when to stand up, when to sit down. And despite not understanding a single word, you know exactly what it being said. The angel Gabriel. No room in the Inn. The bright star. Shepherds and wise men. In the gaps, however, there is a lot of room for reflection. I ponder the amazing thought that on this night, people from nations all around the world, speaking hundreds of different languages with many different cultures and customs, have come together to celebrate the same event — the birth of our savior.

Everyone stands up. Music fills the church as the Goan standing next to me reaches for the hymn book. I try to join in humming along and guessing the next note in the tune. My neighbor, sensing my need for help, extends his book in my direction tracing his finger along the lyrics in time with the song.


I have always laughed at the Christmas cards with lights strung up in palm trees. Warm weather and Christmas don’t correlate in my mind — but I am willing to convert. Christmas Day and the days to follow were filled with lounging on the beach in reclining chairs under a shady cabana. The crashing waves of the Arabian sea provided the excitement of the East Coast beaches while the warm water was just as inviting as the Caribbean. It was a perfect Christmas.


Locals walked up and down the beach offering their wares — fresh pineapple and coconut, beads, ice cream, and scarves. Rationalizing away our fears of fruit (was it peeled or unpeeled that we’re not supposed to eat?) we sampled the most delicious freshly cut pineapple and quickly made it our breakfast routine.


At the end of the day we strolled up our calm and quiet stretch of beach toward the next town where we encountered a bit of the hippy culture for which Goa has a reputation. Historically a tiny remote fishing village, a new bridge has made this part of Goa more accessible and fueled its popularity. The crowds — of a healthy mix of Indians and foreigners — covered the wide sandy beach practicing yoga, playing drums and flutes, making sandcastles, and splashing in the water. Indian boys played cricket and soccer with intensity. Meanwhile, the local fisherman continued their routine dodging the tourists, pulling in their boats and prepared their nets for the next day at work. And the cows, well, they just sat around taking it all in.

Following our relaxing stint on the beach, we headed to Kerala’s big city of Cochin. Check back tomorrow (or the next day) as our journey continues.

View our Goa album for more photos.

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