Christmas morning is a bonanza for my nephews and nieces, box after box from loving aunts, uncles and grandfolk. I love watching them open all the gifts, but I have to admit to a twinge of envy, even now in my 30s — Christmas didn’t look anything like this when I was their age.
Christmas actually didn’t look like anything for much of my childhood — we didn’t celebrate it. My parents, immigrants from India, wanted to make sure that my brother and I knew we were Hindu and understood what that meant. They figured celebrating a Christian holiday would confuse things.
Little by little, as time passed, the rules relaxed and Christmas came to represent just good cheer and the end of the year. The tree came first, when I was 13 or so. Gift-exchanging in my little nuclear family came a couple of years later. Some years after that, the extended family joined in and, finally, we had the whole holiday meal. (The final line to be crossed is stockings by the fireplace, but so far, my mom is holding firm.)
Figuring out what to do about the holiday hoopla that is Christmas can be a tricky issue for those who don’t have a religious reason to observe it. Many Jews celebrate Chanukah instead, which falls at around the same time. But if you’re Hindu or Muslim and celebrate your big holidays at other times of the year, what do you do?
Chandrani Ghosh managed to sidestep this question for a couple of years after her daughter Malaika was born — they would go to visit family in India every December and not worry about Christmas at all. But now that the 5-year-old is in school, and has been joined by 1-year-old Milind, jaunting off halfway around the world in December doesn’t work as well.
Last year, the family spent the holiday with Ghosh’s brother-in-law and his wife, who celebrates Christmas in a big way. Little Malaika fell in love with the pretty tree — so much so that one will probably be going up in Ghosh’s Chevy Chase, Md., home this year.
“The plan is to have the tree because everybody does, and I don’t want her to feel like she can’t,” Ghosh said. “She’s already asked us for it.”
But it’s still important to Ghosh that her family not get carried away with an excess of gifts and materialism. And it’s important to her that her children understand their own culture, so she makes a point of celebrating the Hindu holiday of Diwali, which marks the start of a new year and falls around October. It’s a big gift-giving, feasting, family-gathering type celebration for Hindus and other Indians around the world.
“I have no problem mixing as long as we continue to do both,” Ghosh said.
A time for family
Others have no problem marking Christmas, seeing it from the get-go as a time to celebrate family togetherness, rather than as anything religious. When Megha Bhouraskar was growing up, her father’s main problem with Christmas was the mess that came with having a tree.
They did Indianize the holiday: Her mother would make Indian snacks to serve to guests along with the eggnog, and the adults would gather for card games, as is commonly done for Diwali.
“My parents saw it more as a family time,” said Bhouraskar, an attorney in Manhattan.
She continues that tradition with her 15-year-old son, Ishan.
For Saba Baig, however, Christmas remains tied to its religious origins and is not something that she, as a Muslim, feels comfortable celebrating. She remembers dreading going back to school after the December break because she would be surrounded by students displaying their new clothes and other gifts.
“I would always try to arrange it, without telling my parents, to wear something new,” she said.
But her parents explained to her from a young age that they had their own religion with its own holidays, such as Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting time known as Ramadan, which this year fell in October. As Baig grew up, it became easier to not observe Christmas.
Now the mother of a 22-month-old son, with a second child on the way, Baig, of Sterling, Va., assumes she’ll pass the same message on to her children. She hopes to continue traditions like going to the mosque together on Muslim holidays.
“We always went to prayer together as a family,” she said. “Those are things that I would like to keep up with my children.”