Christmas in India

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

First publication in the Pioneer on 24 December 1886, and in the Pioneer Mail on 29 December. In the Pioneer there was a column heading, “Latter-Day Carols”, covering this poem, signed “R.K.”, and “The Dyspeptic in India” signed “K.R.” written by E. Kay Robinson.
Robinson was Assistant Editor of the Pioneer at the time, and in the summer of 1886 was appointed Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, where he encouraged Kipling’s creative writing; the two became good friends.

The 4th, 5th and 6th lines of the last verse of Kipling’s poem were also included under the title “Christmas Joys”, with selections from the works of a number of poets. Christmas Joys was als the title of the book.

“Christmas in India” is collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1888)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 115
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

See David Alan Richards (p.20) for further details of publication, and (p. 697) for musical settings of the piece. Also Brian Mattinson’s research summarised on this site. See also ORG, Volume 8 p. 5145 (Verse No. 215).

The theme

This is a poignant look at exiles celebrating the Christmas family festival, far from home and in an alien climate. The ‘dusk behind the tamarisks’ could not be more different from the traditional frosts and holly and log fires of Christmas at Home.


However, the Anglo-Indians did their best to mark the Christmas season with affection and goodwill, as Kipling recalled nostalgucally in 1895, at the end of “William the Conqueror” Part II in The Day’s Work. Here he is describing the return of a team of administrators to the Punjab after work on famine relief in the South:

Morning brought the penetrating chill of the Northern December, the layers of wood-smoke, the dusty grey-blue of the tamarisks, the domes of ruined tombs, and all the smell of the white Northern plains, as the mail-train ran on to the mile-long Sutlej Bridge…They were picking them up at almost every station now—men and women coming in for the Christmas Week, with racquets, with bundles of polo-sticks, with dear and bruised cricket-bats, with fox-terriers and saddles …

About midnight half a dozen men who did not care for dancing came over from the Club to play “Waits,” and that was a surprise the Stewards had arranged—before any one knew what had happened, the band stopped, and hidden voices broke into “Good King Wenceslaus,” and William in the gallery hummed and beat time with her foot.

At the time the poem was written Kipling himself was with his parents and sister in what he called “the Family Square” writing contributions to the Christmas number of his paper and generally enjoying family life after a long separation.

Some critical comments

Charles Allen (p. 234) mentions these two poems, calling Kipling’s version “characteristically sardonic” and Robinson’s “conventionally sentimental” but does not give us the text.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

tamarisks shrubs of the order Tamaricaceae

Home in this contest the United Kingdom.

white and scarlet berry the fruits of mistletoe (Alburn) and holly (Ilex Aquifolium) respectively, traditionally used to decorate houses at Christmas. The holly was traditionally a sacred tree, as Kipling was aware. In “Friendly Brook” (A Diversity of Creatures) (p. 46) two men are trimming a hedge:

By noon a length of unclean jungle had turned iinto a cattle-proof barrier, tufted here and there with little plumes of the sacred holly which no woodman touches without orders.

[Verse 2]

ghat a burning-ghat, a flight of steps running down to a river, where the bodies of the dead are cremated.

Rama the legendary Indian king regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu.

psalters books of psalms, usually incorporated in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church.

“Good Christian men rejoice” an old German carol “In Dulci Jubilo” translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), English priest, scholar and hymn-writer. This is the first of three verses:

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

[Verse 3]

Heimweh homesickness (German).

the black dividing Sea the ocean is known as kala-pani – ‘the black water’, in some of the Indian stories

Youth was cheap in Something of Myself (p. 41) Kipling writes of young men who: ‘died from typhoid mostly at the regulation age of twenty-two.
(Page 41.)

Owls nocturnal birds of prey of the order Strigiformes.


conches a number of different species of sea snails, or their shells, of the family Strombidae. The shells can be made into primitive trumpets, used in temples as here. Fishermen sometimes used them as fog-signals.

caste the divisions of Hindus in India into social and religious groups, which form separate communities and do not eat together, work together, or intermarry. See Hobson-Jobson (p. 170). It is mentioned frequently in Kim.

“faint and forced the laughter” apparantly a quotation but we have not traced it and would appreciate information from readers/

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved