How I Warmed Up to Christmas
"What is Santa going to bring me for Christmas?"
These words on a child's lips are guaranteed to bring dread to the heart of any desi parent who has yet to fully embrace this annual tradition of life in the U.S. This innocent query of a child conjures up nightmarish images of shopping in crowded malls with equally crowded parking lots, and of spending too much, only to have the whole experience crowned with "Mo...om, this is so last year! I hate it!"
Thanks to two American born daughters, four and seven years of age, this scenario is now familiar to us. Though, it was not always so; growing up in India, gift-giving as a marathon annual event was an alien concept. Though, the other markers of Christmas were not too different from our celebration of Diwali. And oh, how we enjoyed those festival times – the lights everywhere, the music, the dancing, the religious processions, and, of course, the ubiquitous sales at stores. And the food?ah!
My first two Christmases in the U.S. were spent gawking at the decorations, the sales, and the festivities. Then came the "been there, done that" phase. Finally, we settled into enjoying Christmas just as a day off work—until the kids came along, that is.
Even after our first daughter was born, we did not have any problems initially. Soon enough, however, she was three, in daycare and discovering the world outside. As the peer pressure of gift-giving rose, so did our panic. All at once, the benign holiday began to grow fangs. Though we did celebrate our own religious festivals at home in a quiet manner, we did not want our children to miss out on the biggest holiday in the community of which we were now a part.
However, this involved big decisions: to what extent should we participate in traditions of Christmas? What do we do when the kids ask about Santa and their gifts?
I called a few of my Indian friends to find out how they coped, only to find out that they fell into two groups. One group bought completely into the tree buying, decorating and extravagant gift-giving mode, which was a little too much for our mind-set, not to mention our wallet. The other group acted as if doing anything for Christmas would be tantamount to converting from their religion. There was no middle ground. After much cogitation, there appeared only one way to go: we would make up our own Christmas tradition, from scratch.
First came the tree—not a real tree, that would be too much. Ours was plastic, about a foot high and had character, i.e., it was ugly but cute. We bought a few ornaments and made a big deal of decorating it. It must have taken about 10 minutes in all—but I'll never forget the joy on our three-year-old's face when she got to turn the lights on. We had bought her an infant doll as her Christmas gift. She wanted to know what gifts we expected, and we told her that Santa brought only children's gifts.
Our little prodigy also had a very pertinent question. Our home had no fireplace, hence no chimney. How was Santa to come in? The answer was to crack open a window. Voila! We also decided to add another tradition: to see if we could catch Santa in action, we spread sleeping bags on the living room floor close to the tree and camped there on Christmas Eve. That way, she also got to see her gift first thing on Christmas morning.
That year saw the start of our family Christmas traditions: decorating the plastic tree, camping near it on Christmas Eve, and the ‘one gift per kid' rule. Since then, we have added on to our traditions, and our family, too, has grown. No doubt, there will be a lot more cultural challenges to face as our daughters grow older, but at least Christmas won't scare us any more. These days, our kids bring Christmas ornaments that they made at school to hang on the tree that is older than one of them. They help bake cookies for Santa which, remarkably, are the kind that Dad and Mom like. We have also taken to Christmas baking (and eating) in a big way. Just last year, my husband and kids had a turkey for Christmas (I am vegetarian); I put on three pounds over the holidays (I love the cookies), and griped about it through January. Hurray! We were finally a part of the Christmas culture!
Along the way, we also picked up a few other local customs. We really appreciated some of the programs by local charities such as ‘Toys for Tots' and the Food Bank, and my husband and I wanted our children to imbibe this sharing spirit. Therefore, every Christmas, the kids get to select a few gifts and groceries for less fortunate children and drop them off in the collection bins at big stores. Afterwards, we talk about the blessings we have received that we have to be thankful for, such as family and friends, both here and back home in India.
Celebrating Christmas with my family in the United States taught me one thing. Irrespective of culture, religion, or race, what we human beings crave is to get together as a community and rejoice, which is why every religion has its holidays. As long as we are willing to celebrate life together, there is hope for the ultimate ideal of the human race: Peace on Earth!
By LAKSHMI PALECANDA
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