Celebrating Christmas in the spirit of Diwali

Above: Nandini beams in anticipation of opening Christmas presents. Top: Nandini stands in front of a rangoli at the Ekta Mandir temple in Phoenix during Diwali. Photos courtesy of Rudri Bhatt Patel.
Nandini stands in front of a rangoli at the Ekta Mandir temple in Phoenix during Diwali. Photos courtesy of Rudri Bhatt Patel.

Hindi songs played in the background while my sister and I decorated our Christmas tree with silver and gold ornaments.

When I was a little girl in a small Texas town, my East Indian immigrant parents insisted on celebrating familiar customs associated with the holiday season: ordering fruitcake from the famous Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, adorning the mantle with red-and-white stockings, sending out Christmas cards to family and friends and buying presents to place beneath the tree.

We’d drink our chai in the morning and sip hot chocolate in the evening, conversing in both English and Gujarati as the smell of saffron and nutmeg lingered.

As a child, I didn’t understand my parents’ groundbreaking message. Embracing a culture and a holiday not their own posed risks and questions: Were they pushing the envelope toward assimilation too far? Did they risk sacrificing their Indian traditions for another region’s customs? How did they negotiate honoring the heritage they left behind and moving forward in a new continent, language and culture?

Only weeks before, we had celebrated Diwali, the Hindu celebration known as the Festival of Lights. My mom lingered in the kitchen, cooking such traditional Indian sweets as carrot halwa and gulab jamum. Diyas (small  candles) were placed throughout the house, and we spent days perfecting our rangoli — a decorative drawing made of colored sand on the porch.

On Diwali, my family dressed in new saris and wore our best jewelry, which Mom had brought from India. Phone calls, visits from friends and exchanges of “Happy Diwali!” provided a welcome in the morning. In the evening, we’d eat puri, subji and raita, as well as the sweets my mom had made earlier. Later, our family piled into the car and drove to the local temple, where we greeted friends with festive wishes and watched fireworks. My sister and I always received gifts to commemorate the auspicious occasion.

Diwali typically occurs in early November. Its proximity to Christmas didn’t create a conflict, it afforded a learning opportunity. My parents celebrated Christmas in the spirit of Diwali. Their guidance allowed me to absorb Hindu culture despite never having lived in India and blend it with my American upbringing.

I’m not certain if their actions were intentional or accidental, straddling the fence between Diwali and Christmas. The lesson, though, shined with clarity: tolerance of customs, cultures and differing viewpoints.

English is the prevailing language in my home, and my 10-year-old daughter has never been to Mumbai. I face a much different question — how do I navigate the cultural gulf that has emerged in raising my daughter, Nandini? Do I highlight Diwali with a greater vigor and downplay Christmas?

Nandini beams in anticipation of opening Christmas presents.
Nandini beams in anticipation of opening Christmas presents.

The week of Diwali, I attempt to pass cultural traditions to Nandini. She participates in a dance with a group of her peers, performing for the Valley’s Indian community. That evening, the entire family dons their Sunday best, meets with friends to exchange greetings and enjoys a traditional Indian meal.

Nandini calls her grandparents on Diwali, and they chat as we drive to the temple to celebrate the festivities. I watch as she weaves toward her friends and hear the exclamations of  “Happy Diwali!” These moments make me nostalgic for my past and offer the opportunity to teach my daughter some of what I experienced as a girl.

It isn’t a selective sharing of experiences.

During Christmas, Nandini adores baking cookies for Santa, loves to decorate the tree and searches the house to spot the Elf on the Shelf. While we sort through the decorations, we listen to “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

She preps her list for Santa and asks, “Do you think I’ve been good this year?” We attend holiday parties, greet friends and engage in the revelry of the season by viewing holiday lights around the neighborhood. On Christmas Day, my husband and I watch as Nandini enthusiastically opens her presents.

What do these seemingly different celebrations share? A chance to teach important lessons of tolerance, time to experience joy and the knowledge that embracing one cultural custom doesn’t mean sacrificing another. As we light diyas for Diwali and trim the tree for Christmas, my hope is Nandini will absorb this wisdom braided together by her mother and grandparents.