Christmas Traditions and Small Comforts

Written by BlackbirdGo December 25, 2018
The People

“Do you even celebrate Christmas?”
As someone who had attended Catholic school for as long as I could remember, this came as a confusing question to me when I was first asked it. I was born in India and moved to the United States in the year 2000 when I was eight years old. Along with many other, and much more hurtful assumptions, my peers and a handful of adults in my life figured I didn’t celebrate Christmas. Of course, not everyone outright stated this, but this question was often brought on by the fact that people knew I was an immigrant. Whether my classmates knew the term immigrant or not, they were all aware that I wasn’t from the United States, which led them to believe everything about me was different, including the holidays I celebrated.

Out of the about 1.3 billion people in India, around 17 million of them are Catholic. Often, when folks come across brown people from India, they assume the religion they practice must be Hinduism. Even though the majority of the Indian population practices Hinduism, India, like most places, is made up of people with various religious beliefs. My mother was raised Catholic, and my father was raised Sikh. Together, they have raised my brother and I with bits of both of these religions.

Christmas was always a big deal for my mother growing up. I didn’t know much about her experience surrounding it until recently, when I asked her to write me whatever she remembered about Christmas during her childhood. I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the traditions she grew up with she tried to include in my life as well.

When asking my mother about Christmas traditions from her childhood, she mentioned that the gifts she received as a child were always clothes. She pointed out that these clothes were special because they were similar to those she and her siblings would see in Bollywood movies at the time. My mother grew up poor and was one of seven children, but she says she always remembers feeling as if she had everything she could ever want on Christmas day. Her mother would make homemade “Indian sweets,” and, after opening gifts, my mother and her siblings would all go caroling in the neighborhood. Once I learned of these traditions, I felt closer to my mother, but, more than anything, I felt sad for her, as many of these traditions disappeared for her once we moved to the United States.

The Christmas traditions in India are different than the American Christmas traditions. One stark difference for my household was the lack of a Christmas tree. My family and I never had a Christmas tree in our home in India, and even the few we would see in shops or other people’s homes were artificial. Instead of a Christmas tree, my brother’s and my gifts would be left next to or underneath our pillow if they were small enough to fit. I’m not sure about my brother, but I firmly believed that Santa Claus himself was sneaking in and quietly placing these gifts next to my pillow. When I asked my mom to tell me about her Christmas traditions as a child, she talked about how her gifts would also be put next to her pillow instead of under a tree. We grew up in such different times that there are very few parts of our childhood that are similar, and to find that she made sure to pass this small tradition on to my brother and I warmed my heart to no end.

My very last Christmas in India, I decided I would stay up to catch a peek at Santa leaving me a gift near my pillow. I stayed up as late as I could and realized he was nowhere in sight. I figured he was just late or wasn’t showing up because I was still awake. I eventually fell asleep and excitedly awoke in the morning and, to my surprise, found no gift at all. I looked underneath my pillow and underneath my brother’s pillow, just to make sure Santa didn’t misplace my present, but still found nothing. I was convinced that the only explanation for this was that they must be at my maternal grandmother’s home and Santa just got the addresses mixed up. After not finding them there either, I came to the conclusion that Santa hated me and my family.

The next year we moved to the United States, and I realized that Santa wasn’t real and that my family celebrated Christmas “wrong.” I wondered why we had no tree, no stockings, no going to church, and no Christmas ham!

Eventually, after a year of being in the U.S., we bought a fake tree that we used for at least ten years. We still don’t do stockings or a “Christmas ham.” The tradition we created was just getting together with our immediate family because we all have the day off. The food we usually eat is butter chicken, naan or roti, daal, and rice. We have desserts such as gulab jamun, kheer, and gajerella. As an adult, I find myself looking back at my childhood and kicking myself for spending many Christmases upset because my experiences didn’t mirror those of the children at school. I often found myself feeling jealous that I didn’t always get together with my extended family, specifically my mom’s side of the family, because they were all still in India. Due to the legality of our immigrant status, it took me a very long time to obtain my citizenship; thus, I was unable to visit my maternal grandparents until it was too late and they had both passed away. I always resented this country for taking away that precious time I could have had with my maternal grandparents, especially during times like Christmas. I still hold many of these feelings today but try and make the best of Christmas.

No matter what, I always make it a point to spend the day with my mother. My father has been in the restaurant business, particularly catering, for the eighteen years we’ve been in the United States, meaning there have been many a Christmas where he hasn’t been able to be with us because he was working someone else’s celebration instead. There have been times where Christmas has just been my mother and I, sitting in separate rooms content with the fact that we have a day to rest. I believe that for many Indian immigrant children, large-scale commercial holidays such as Christmas can make us feel alienated and like we are missing out on something. To those children, I have one piece of advice to offer: make your own traditions, no matter how simple or extravagant. Spend less of your time wondering what goes on in the homes of others and focus on what you want your experiences to look and feel like.