THRISSUR, India — Dec. 27 became a red-letter day — and a red-suited day — in the history of Thrissur, when the local archdiocese organized a historic Buon Natale celebration that set a new Guinness record for “the largest gathering of Santa Clauses.”

Thrissur is the cultural capital of Kerala, the southern Indian state with the nation’s largest Christian population. The Santas came from parishes throughout the area.

“It is a mammoth and amazing achievement. You have assembled the largest Santa Claus gathering ever. The final count is 18,112,” declared Guinness Book of World Records’ official adjudicator, Lucia Sinigagliesi, after taking the official count of the horde of Santa Clauses who had converged in the center of Thrissur.

Amid thunderous applause from the “ocean of red” — the sea of Santas inside the barricaded area — the Guinness Book official handed over the “Guinness Record” certificate to Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Thrissur, the main organizer of the Buon Natale event, along with M.S. Jaya, the district of Thrissur’s senior administrative official, and Mayor Rajan Pallan of Thrissur.

The previous record for the largest gathering of Santa Clauses was 13,000, set in Ireland on Dec. 9, 2007.

Breaking that Guinness record was not an easy task. “We have been preparing for this for over six months,” Father Jose Konikkara, chairman of the Buon Natale organizing committee, told the Register.

After registering the names and numbers of the volunteer participants from each parish, organizers had to make sure that Santa costumes of the appropriate sizes were ordered from New Delhi and distributed in time to each parish, Father Konikkara pointed out.

On the day of the event, Santas of varied ages, ranging from young children to those in their 60s and all Catholic volunteers from parishes of the archdiocese, came clad in red Santa hats, beards, belts and flowing red robes.

The participants from Mattam parish, 15 miles from Thrissur, made it a memorable day, with more than 1,000 participants traveling together in a train wearing, all wearing Santa Claus suits.

Upon reaching Thrissur by noon, the Santas from near and far queued up patiently for a couple of hours to enter the designated area. Entry of each Santa to the enclosure was monitored with computers and finger-printing machines, in order to register the bar-coded entry forms with photos that had been distributed from parish-level registrations months earlier to ensure an accurate count.

“I am amazed. This is incredible. I have never seen anything like this,” said an enthusiastic Archbishop Enrico dal Covolo, the major rector of Pontifical Lateran University, who was the papal delegate on hand to witness the historic event.

 

A Meandering River of Red

Soon after the declaration of the new record, it was time for the Santa Claus parade. Thrissur’s city center, known for its circular intersection of two miles, was turned into a meandering river of red by the Santas merrily singing Christmas carols and dancing to the tune of accompanying bands.

More than 2,000 dancing angels, interspersed with huge floats enacting biblical scenes, added color to the pageant, while a Catholic family of seven children was drawn in a horse carriage ahead of the assembly.

The two-and-half-hour parade ended when the Santas returned to the starting point, where Kerala Chief Minister Ommen Chandy and other government ministers awaited to close the historic show.

“I congratulate all those who worked hard behind this great achievement. This is not only a show, but a celebration of charity,” declared Chandy, the head of Kerala’s government. The praise was followed by the distribution of keys to two free houses built for the poor as part of Buon Natale. The beneficiaries were people with disabilities who had joined the parade in tricycles, wearing Santa Claus suits.

“Programs like this will foster communal harmony and understanding,” pointed out Chandy. In fact, the majority of the expense for the costumes of the participants was donated by a Hindu business group, and some Hindu organizations served on the event’s organizing committee.

Swami Shivananda Swaroopan, one of Thrissur’s prominent Hindu leaders, hailed the Church for organizing the event with Hindu involvement.  “We need such cooperation to promote harmony and peace in society,” said Swaroopan.

“Thank you all for making this dream come true,” said Archbishop Thazhath. “This is not a show of numbers. It’s a celebration of charity and harmony.”

 

Archbishop Thazhath

“We wanted to make history with the Guinness record, as Thrissur is a historic place, blessed by the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle,” Archbishop Thazhath, who is also the vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told the Register,

The seeds of Christianity were sown in Kerala — the largest Christian heartland in India, with a population of slightly more than 6 million Christians out of a total state population of 31.8 million people, according to the 2001 census of India — by St. Thomas, who landed at Kodungalloor in the Thrissur district in the year 52 in the company of spice merchants from the Middle East.

“We had over 5,000 Santas in our Buon Natale parade last year. So we decided to expand it to cross the Guinness record,” Archbishop Thazhath explained.

“We wanted to make it an event to celebrate charity and harmony,” he added. “That is why the citizens of Thrissur, including Hindus, were involved in it, and several charity programs were attached to it.” 

Along with a contribution of 10 million rupees (approximately $170,000) from the archdiocese to stage the event, Archbishop Thazhath said that the local Church was able to raise 50 million rupees (around $850,000) for charity. The charitable initiatives include building 10 houses for the poor, assistance for the marriages of 25 poor girls and free heart surgeries.

And keys to a mobile van worth $40,000, for transporting sick people for palliative care, were handed over to Thrissur’s palliative-care society at the parade’s concluding ceremony.

 

‘A Proclamation of Our Faith’

“This is not a mere cultural pageant. It is also a proclamation of our faith. All the Catholic organizations played a key role in making this a success,” Davis Puthur, the convener of Buon Natale, told the Register.

Puthur said this Catholic witness was particularly important in India’s current context of anti-Christian denunciations and physical attacks on believers.

Said Puthur, “The message is that we Christians are here and will be here. This is our response to the ongoing anti-Christian propaganda and violence.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.