When I was 24, I moved to Illinois from Mumbai, India, for graduate school. The transition was hard, but the following year, during the summer of 1996, I met a a fellow male student who grew up in New Delhi, India. We shared a love of food, had easy conversations, were both Hindu and found plenty of humor in our differences, particularly the friendly rivalry between a Bombay-ite and a Delhi-ite. We shared many of the same values, our plans always included each other, with gifts that needed no occasions, and our friendship effortlessly blossomed into more. We were married in April 2000.
As a married Hindu couple, the calendar began to mark the many official firsts. Hoping to recreate celebrations from back home, we embarked on converting our apartment into a home. But that first year was hard. Nuanced differences between our family traditions made creating our own torturous — for instance, both our families observed different traditions for Diwali. We became territorial, exhausted, secretly hopeful that the other would concede. Through all our arguing, I wasn’t sure what we were even fighting for, and it felt like we were trying to make our elders and others happy rather than ourselves.
By December 2000, still living in the Midwest, I longed for a celebration that did not tug on our nuance-filled Hindu identities. I became nostalgic for my childhood, one filled with decadent cookies, sample rum cakes, decorated Christmas trees and carolers. For the first 24 years of my life in Mumbai, lights were left in place year-round and plugged in as needed. And during Christmas, colorful star-shaped paper lanterns would hang across apartment balconies, courtyards and on low tree branches to create a vibrant cityscape.
My father, a decorated police officer, practiced a genuine acceptance and respect toward all religions and instilled the same values in us. His mother was born Jewish but converted to Hinduism before her marriage, so he had learned religious intolerance firsthand. Even though my family is Hindu, my parents did not hesitate to enroll my brother and I in Catholic schools. In time, we became well-versed with many church-based celebrations.
For Hindu families like ours, Christmastime felt like an extension of Diwali, a lunar celebration in October or November, but without the dietary restrictions of alcohol or meat consumption. Our Catholic friends’ Christmases were religious, but just as they did not hesitate to visit us at Diwali, we joined in their excitement and merrymaking.
“My husband did not share my excitement about Christmas. He didn't understand why our Hindu household should observe a Christian holiday.”
My Delhi-ite husband had not attended Catholic school, but one with a dominant Hindu student body. Delhi governed India’s politics; its electric, high-octane environment influenced everything. He said unlike Mumbai, life in Delhi did not spill out into the streets; Delhi, its people and its celebrations seemed guarded both literally and metaphorically. Suddenly, our friendly rivalry was not as friendly anymore.
He did not share my excitement. He’d wonder why our Hindu household should observe a Christian holiday. He didn’t think we needed to fall into the trappings and displays of Christmas. Since we had received our token presents during Diwali, there were to be no Christmas presents. My excitement was downgraded to draping 36 tiny red and white ornaments strung on a red ribbon over our indoor palm. George Michael’s melancholy ”Last Christmas” played in my head until New Year’s Eve. Christmas was not our celebration and I gave up on trying to make it happen.
Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. The nationalist sentiment that followed reminded us often that we were different. The U.S. was polarized, particularly about identity and belonging. People didn’t see us as immigrants who considered the U.S. their home, but as outsiders. We felt homesick and unrepresented. We wanted to erase misconceptions, but did not know how.
We moved to Georgia in 2005 after our daughter was born, and also because my husband received a job offer. I enrolled our 3-year-old in a nearby Baptist day school out of convenience, and later at the neighborhood elementary school. Our curious chatterbox turned 5 in 2008 and may or may not have offered an unsolicited opinion about Santa’s existence to fellow kindergarteners. We received a carefully crafted email shortly after.
“Confused and angry, our daughter asked us why we didn’t observe Christmas just like everyone else, and declared that either we or her friends were lying about Santa.”
Confused and angry, our daughter asked us why we didn’t observe Christmas just like everyone else, and declared that either we or her friends were lying. Our best explanations were in vain. Kindergartners can’t comprehend traditions, religion or rituals. She couldn’t understand why we decorated our house a certain way long before Halloween, or our loneliness when no one wished anyone “Happy Diwali.”
As an immigrant nuclear family without extended family nearby, school events like a Thanksgiving play, chorus performances with religious hymns and “holiday” shows for her dance program had left us conflicted. The recession tightened our purse, but we contributed bits of our savings to holiday gifts — lest our circumstances dampen another’s celebrations. Our daughter didn’t see why she didn’t receive gifts from friends at Diwali, nor at Christmas, but she had to give presents out instead and had to believe in Santa. It did not seem fair. My husband and I had to think hard about the messages behind religious celebrations. Would exclusively favoring an inherited religious identity, while limiting participation in others, deprive a child of the joy of celebrations of her community, and penalize her for choices she did not make?
Since then, we’ve decorated a tree at Christmas. My husband gets the honor of placing the first ornament. One year, we even decorated two trees. When our daughter feels confident with her singing, we’ve recorded a holiday hymn or carol to share. Sometimes I join in. I light a candle in my paternal grandmother’s memory at Hanukkah. My husband and daughter decorate a gingerbread house. Secret lists are made, presents bought, wrapped and exchanged, cookies baked and eaten, carols sung and Charlie Brown movies watched. Santa’s delivery sometimes includes books, fresh art supplies or music. And we send out appreciation gifts.
“Would exclusively favoring an inherited religious identity, while limiting participation in others, deprive a child of the joy of celebrations of her community, and penalize her for choices she did not make?”
Children do not choose their religion, interpersonal family relationships, or the rhetoric of a community that may not fully appreciate diversity. Just as my husband and I had struggled and eventually blended personal traditions for each other, we decided to redefine and appreciate any celebration that crossed our calendars. As a spectator or participant, if we were part of it, we made the best of it, especially for the sake of our daughter.
After two decades, my husband and I agree: All religions teach the same things ― kindness, love, respect and of being good human beings. Religious doctrines are not exclusionary, only interpretations are. We participate in Christmas and we maintain our Hindu celebrations throughout the year ― from Sankranti in January to Diwali in Fall. Hinduism teaches us acceptance of others, and celebrating family. And for culturally displaced families like ours, whose religious beliefs appear complicated, the interpretations of any religious celebration we participate in isn’t as important as appreciating and sharing laughter with our cherished and treasured loves ― that’s the joy that illuminates any season.
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