How Goa crib-hopped in smaller numbers in 2020, but without losing its spirit and thrust on social dialogue
Across the state, people came together to create life-size Nativity scenes in cribs that were often themed on social issues. In the pandemic, the number of crib-hoppers may have reduced, but the sentiment remained unchanged.
The hill plays the perfect backdrop. Down its side cascades a waterfall in cloth, leading to a green pasture. The grass is real, the sheep are cotton clouds, like cartoon characters with round eyes. Over boulders and scraggy rocks are mud huts and castles with little pathways; round the bend is a life-size carpentry workshop with women busy at work. At the end of the tableau is a crowded manger with a hen laying eggs, and two figures looking over a new-born baby. From outside, flutes of carols stream in.
It’s an idyllic scene and though not historically accurate, it reflects the Catholic view of the birth of Christ. This tableau by a youth group in Udear is part of that essential aspect of Christmas in Goa: cribs.
A crib hosts the Nativity scene representing the birth of Jesus. These cribs use characters and objects to showcase the birth of Christ — in a manger surrounded by his parents Mother Mary and St Joseph, some farm animals and shepherds and the three Magi. The cribs or nativity scenes are an integral part of the festival's décor. Most Goan homes make their own cribs either in the garden or in the corner of the house; others use readymade cribs. In villages, the Church usually has a crib (and star) making contest. At my grandmother’s home, we make a big crib, befitting the size of the house and the idols. We use mud, shells, and ferns from the garden, sand from the abandoned house nearby, and borrowed hay to fashion our interpretation of the Nativity scene.
There’s another aspect of cribs that very few have discovered in Goa. Beyond the cribs at home, there are life-size cribs set up in fields, parks, markets, farms, village streets and roads. Youth groups in different villages rally, collect funds, and spend the month of Advent setting up these cribs. These are elaborate creations, employing mud and sand and manmade water bodies with live fish, thermocol castles as homes for the Three Kings, scenes from Goan village life, and more. Each one is unique in its aesthetic. Some invite a walk-through on demarcated paths; the figures populating some cribs are mechanical. Beyond the Nativity scenes are loudspeakers playing carols and Konkani songs, and lately selfie spots in front of Santa Claus and sleighs in faux snow, among other oddities. A donation box at the end invites visitors to show their appreciation tangibly.
Every year, we leave the party-hopping to tourists and embark on our own crib-hopping expedition. It has been 12 years since my brother and his college friends started crib-hopping. They fix a day when everyone is free in the evening — the cribs are best viewed when all lit up with fewer visitors. It is widely accepted that the nicest and most elaborate cribs are in South Goa. Living in the North means driving down to my brother's friends’ home in the South, and swapping four wheels for comfortable two-wheelers. I’ve only recently started accompanying them on these visits. It’s a small group (less than 10 people) and we stay out till early morning, roaming South Goa’s villages, breaking for dinner at a bar that stays open late or a quick cutlet pao/choris pao at a food truck.
This year’s cribs felt the COVID-19 impact. They are usually funded by generous donors, some of whom are 'shippies' (Goans working on ships/cruise lines) while others are settled abroad. In 2020, the loss of income and jobs reduced donations. Cribs tend to get a lot of visitors but in times of social distancing, many took the decision to not crib-hop. This resulted in a sharp decrease in cribs or downsized versions of them. The visitors were less too; everyone had masks on while maintaining a distance.
My crib-hopping in 2020 was low-key. It began at my ancestral village, where our new parish priest had decided to make use of the little empty garden, which is usually ignored, to set up a crib. One part highlighted the Mollem issue (the infrastructure project that will destroy thousands of trees in the wildlife sanctuary), and others spoke about the need to be kind to migrants and all people (irrespective of religion).
Goa’s cribs do not shy away from politics. There is spotlight shone on important issues concerning the state and its citizens. This year, two hot topics were 'Save Mollem' and Goyant Kollso Naka, the citizen-led movements to stop Goa’s forests from getting destroyed, and prevent the state from turning into a coal hub. Almost every crib we saw had a train carrying coal with stop signs. One crib in a small field had a more elaborate scene with a station, and a little patch of ‘dug-up land’ and toy trucks to depict mining with the sign ‘Give us what Goa lacks, not your double track’ planted nearby. At a different site, a teddy bear drove a train carrying coal with Vedanta and Adani markers. As someone in our group joked, if these cribs participated in an all-Goa crib competition, they would be disqualified.
Beyond the politics, there were a few other changes. All the bottles presumably used during the lockdown found their way to the cribs as raw material. Another change was the realisation that one of the three Kings could’ve been from a desert country, and so, pyramids and sand dotted the landscape. A minimalist crib containing cut out characters lit from behind, in Ucassaim, urged people to stay safe and wear a mask. Other cribs had patches showcasing Goa’s produce, leafy greens like tambdi bhaji (red amaranth). There were miniature versions of different aspects of Goan life — toddy-tappers, potters, farmers, and tiny marketplaces with spice racks, and pottery stands. A highly detailed crib at Cansaulim had a slightly South East-Asian touch in the form of the birds on display.
The cribs we missed this year were the Wealth out of Waste one at Margao, an initiative by a Luis family to create an entire tableau using discarded plastic. There was livestock and even cashew fruit made of plastic, mud and straw houses, and coconut shell mushrooms. This year, Rachol Seminary shut their gate to visitors. Last year, their crib played out on the slope leading to their entrance, and depicted scenes from the lives of different saints.
On our way back, as with most years, there was a stopover at Anthony Fernandes’ installation of stars in Agacaim. This decade-old practice by Fernandes is an arresting sight, lighting up one stretch of the road.
The coronavirus outbreak may have dampened the Christmas celebrations in 2020, but in parts of Goa, the stars still shone bright.
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