Category Archives: American Holidays

Holi and Lent

Last night we celebrated a friend’s birthday and Holi in true Nepali fashion… with momos of course!

This is me during Holi two years ago...

In between wrapping the potato/tofu/cabbage (or chicken for the meat eaters) mixture into wanton wrappers and piling them up to be steamed, we would periodically try to smear bright pink colored powder across each other’s faces.

I have yet to be in South Asia during Holi, although someday I hope to. I know it is kind of crazy to go outside during that time… you have to prepare to be pummeled with colored dust, or in Nepal particularly, color-filled water balloons, but I think it would be great fun. I remember once as a little kid someone gave me the idea of making “flour bombs” where you fill a thin napkin with a spoon or two of flour and tie the napkin shut, so when thrown with force it “explodes” white flour everywhere. Holi is essentially the same idea (if you take away the religious aspect of it), and I could see my inner child running wild. We have celebrated a few times with our friends in New England, but the festivities are usually more subdued, since it is usually too cold to go crazy outside, and no one wants a chaotic colored mess to clean off their apartment floor.

Playing Holi in South Asia

The birthday aspect of the evening concluded with some cake, which brings me to the second topic of conversation… Lent.

My relationship with Christianity has been a long and rocky one. So I really wouldn’t classify myself as religious, or even spiritual, but there is one aspect of the Catholic calendar that I do try to adhere to since I find it a fulfilling endeavor—Lent. Generally speaking, Lent is a 40 day period of time in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where Catholics go through a period of fasting. I’ve really tried to do this in earnest each year (but not always successfully) because I think, devoid of its religious connotations, it is a nice anchor throughout the year, a time to abstain from something that you really enjoy or rely on. It helps me to practice self restraint and control, cleanses my system, and puts my needs and desires into perspective for the year.

For many years I’ve tried to focus my 40 day fast on sugary things. I’m a huge sweet tooth. I love chocolate (mmmm, Cadbury caramel Dairy Milk and this time of year… Cadbury cream eggs), and baked goods (pies, strudels, cookies), even sugar in my tea, or a soda at a restaurant for dinner. So cutting out the overtly sugary things in my diet (like all of the above, and including last night’s birthday cake) is really tough, and kicks my butt.

The first two weeks are usually the hardest. I gaze longingly at trays of cookies set out at university events, or mentally debate with myself about how bad it would be to just have a bite. I’ve been eating a lot of apples to help me through… and at the end of the 40 days it will feel really good to know that I didn’t give in to desire.

As a kid I tried to give up different things, like soda or television. I told P that this year we should try to give up eating out, but that would be really tough, because with our work schedules, and his exam studying (he passed! Hurray!), sometimes it’s just easy to grab some quick Chinese or burritos, but I’ll keep that one in mind for the future. Sugar seems to be a good one—a tough challenge, something I use as a crutch, and in giving it up I feel healthier at the end of it all, and it usually helps me decrease my overall sugar intake (after the previous few years fast I prefer less sugar in my tea, and sometimes forgo sugar for honey). Last year our friends R and S gave up rice. I commend them on that feat. I’m sure it equally kicked their butts.

So anyway, 13 days down… 27 more days to go.

For Many, December’s a Dilemma

P forwarded me this article earlier today. I found it interesting and wanted to share. To see the article in its original format click HERE.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — As Christmas season went into full swing this year, Glen Fullmer’s 7-year-old son came home from school with an assignment: Make a poster illustrating his family holiday traditions.

The boy wasn’t sure how to proceed because he and his family are Baha’is, not Christians, and they have no holidays during the Christmas season.

Thus, Fullmer encountered the “December Dilemma” — the term used for the quandaries and anxieties non-Christians and interfaith couples face during Christmas season.

Fullmer, a Baha’i faith spokesman who lives in Evanston, Illinois, said he saw the poster assignment as a “teachable moment” for his 4-, 7- and 10-year-old sons who associated holiday traditions with Christmas.

He reminded his boys that Baha’is have a gift-giving and charity period in February called Ayyam-i-Ha, a stretch of time not unlike the Christmas season.

And he helped his son design the poster about that holiday, which precedes a fasting period and then the Baha’i New Year in March.

“His classmates asked him questions about the holiday, and one of his friends came up to him and wants to celebrate that holiday,” Fullmer said, pleased that his son’s peers helped him reaffirm his identity.

Navigating the Christmas season can be a challenge for the millions of people who don’t celebrate the holiday. Many acknowledge and sometime embrace the season’s customs, such as gift-giving and sending out greeting cards, while at the same time they are conscious of maintaining their own religious identities.

“They strongly try to maintain their own integrity, but they really want to find bridges across holidays,” said the Rev. Dr. Paul Numrich, a professor at the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus in Ohio. “I think that’s the majority.”

L.S. Narasimhan, chairman of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, is a Hindu and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But he said he admires the Christian celebrations of his friends and has attended Christmas Eve services at several churches.

“Hindus are typically more open-minded and tolerant. Hinduism is very comfortable in accommodating a diversity of ideas,” he said.

“It is very common for Hindu families to have Christmas trees at their homes, purely as a fun thing to do for their children. When they visit shopping malls, Hindu parents in general are comfortable with a photo-op for their little kids with Santa.”

But at the same time, there are pressures about the encroachment of Christianity on Hindu life.

“Television commercials, good selection of merchandise and great sale prices persuade Hindu-Americans to take advantage of the shopping spree,” Narasimhan said. “Several Hindu temples have risen up to the challenge and added some special Hindu prayers and ceremonies to engage Hindus who are on winter holidays but not on overseas vacations.”

Dr. Shefali Chheda, an Atlanta-area pediatrician, is a Jain — practicing a religion with Indian roots. Growing up in Houston, Texas, she said her parents “felt comfortable letting us celebrate Christmas,” perhaps to help fit into American society and maintain a sense of normalcy.

“The spirit and meaning of Christmas, of helping others and of giving, are nice messages. Therefore, it is hard to consciously object to it,” Chheda said.

“Jains, as a whole, are a minority in India. Many Jains celebrate Hindu holidays, so celebrating Christmas with Santa and a tree and presents is no different. Since Jains wholeheartedly believe in ‘ahimsa’ — peace toward all living beings in thought, word and action — the Christmas spirit is a very Jain-like philosophy.”

The religious aspect of Christmas — believing Jesus is the savior and that December 25 is his birthday — is not celebrated in Jainism, but the customs and symbols are interwoven into daily life, she said.

“Now that I have toddlers in the house, they come home with stories about Christmas. They sing songs about Rudolph and Santa, and Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. But it’s Santa that everyone talks about, so they talk about him as well,” Chheda said.

“I use Santa as a behavioral modification tool. ‘Santa’s watching you, so you better be good’ works infinitely better than timeout. My kids will be living in this country; they will have a hard enough time anyway with their names and food and other cultural traditions; Christmas — and the Christmas spirit — is not one tradition that I want to take away from them.”

Jesus plays a role in the theology of other religions, such as the Baha’i faith and Islam, even though those faiths don’t observe Christmas as a religious holiday.

The Christmas season presented a struggle for Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, area schools, where he sang the ever-present Christmas carols and made the gingerbread houses in schools but didn’t have a tree in his home.

“We definitely had a little bit of anxiety in childhood,” Tarin said. But that changed as he grew up and refined his American Muslim persona amid the American atmosphere of diversity and tolerance.

Now, where he and his family live in northern Virginia, “we don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate our holidays” — pointing, for example, to Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan and Eid al-Adha after the hajj pilgrimage. But he welcomes the goodwill of the season — the gift-exchanges with non-Muslim neighbors and the requests from schoolteachers to talk about Muslim holidays.

“There’s definitely going to be a level of discomfort, especially for those who aren’t used to that diverse culture that we belong to,” he said. But the unease spawns discussion, presenting a useful opportunity to help young people and newcomers, he said.

For Jews, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah happens to fall during the Christmas season. Hanukkah is wildly popular and observed, with its special foods, gift-giving and candle lighting, and with its symbols such as the menorah — a candelabrum — and the dreidel, a toy that spins like a top.

Compared with other non-Christians, many Jews have drawn a sharper line in the sand when it comes to observing Christmas, a stance informed by historic, theological and self-preservation reasons. That attitude emerged recently during a young professionals’ get-together at an Indian restaurant outside Atlanta sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and Young Indian Professionals.

People there indicated that attending Christmas-themed holiday parties, exchanging greeting cards and wishing Christian friends “Merry Christmas” are surely not uncommon or unacceptable among Jews. But some practices are widely shunned — such as plunking one’s child on Santa’s lap at the mall, and deplored — such as assigning kids in public schools to write a letter to Santa Claus.

“It’s a beautiful season. It brings out a joy,” said Hannah Vahaba, who organized the Jewish-Indian event. “But I’m not going to celebrate it.”

Interfaith couples celebrate their diversity during the Christmas season. Jeff Silver, a certified public accountant who is Jewish, and Shweta Gupta, a dentist who is Hindu, are planning their marriage next year. They will have an interfaith household and said they hope to raise children to understand both of their traditions. At their home in Atlanta, they’ve set up a holiday tree decorated with Hindu and Jewish ornaments.

Non-religious Americans embrace a December “secular holiday” called HumanLight.

Patrick Colucci, vice chair of the HumanLight Committee and member of the New Jersey Humanist Network, said the holiday can uplift “atheist, humanist and nonreligious” people who feel left out and isolated during Christmas.

It was a perfect fit for him when it came along, he said, because “it corresponds with my humanity-based ethics and values, without any supernatural or theistic beliefs. My ‘holiday season’ is HumanLight and New Year’s Eve — that’s what I celebrate.”

“The only dilemma, in my experience is, if Christmas is part of the larger family tradition, and then some family members reject us for not believing in it anymore. We’re not out to take Christmas away from anyone who wants to celebrate it — there is no ‘war on Christmas,’ ” Colucci said.

How do Christians themselves see the presence and practices of non-Christians during Christmas? While many would like to see non-Christians convert to Christianity, they also recognize that the United States is a “diverse society” and that conversion “is not even on their radar screen,” said Numrich, the theology professor.

“There’s a deep American virtue in respecting religious differences,” he said.

Spreading the American-Nepali Love with Christmas

I’ve mentioned this before… that P and I now have an annual Christmas party at our house right before the holidays. I love learning about Nepali culture and participating in Dashain and Tihar, and I feel that it is also important to celebrate and showcase my own culture, and so I get excited about organizing this yearly Christmas gathering.

It starts a day or two before the actual party. I like to invite people over to help make dozens of batches of cookies as the dessert centerpiece at the Christmas party (plus they are good to have around for gifts and to give visitors!) Over the past few years our upstairs Irish and Thai neighbors have helped, AS and N were over this year, KS and our Indian neighbor have also come before, as well as one of my two sisters, depending on who is around at the time.

This year we made 8 different types of cookies… my favorites are the Irish soda bread biscuits because they are kind of like soft biscotti and nice with a cup of tea for breakfast or dessert. We also made orange cranberry drop biscuits, oatmeal raisin/cranberry cookies, spiced sugar cookies, ginger cookies, Swedish jam cookies (with apricot or raspberry jam), peanut butter balls, and macaroons. The macaroons were a big hit, I’ll have to remember that for next year.

Many of our friends were traveling this year, so we didn’t have as many guests as usual at Saturday’s get-together, but we did have a new edition at the party I wanted to mention.

AS, C and N... donning Santa hats and enjoying the party...

I’ve talked about “couchsurfing” before… so a woman in New England recently found P on the couchsurfing website. She had spent several months living and traveling in India and Nepal and when she returned she wanted to keep in touch with people from the region. Since she didn’t know any Nepalis in her area she started looking for people online and stumbled upon us. She wanted to connect with a Nepali community to give her the opportunity to practice speaking the language, and to meet people with a shared interest. She definitely connected with the right couple! P mentioned the Christmas party on Saturday and said that she should come. Despite the snowy weather forecast she made it to our place.

The party was a lot of fun. Lots of food… many American appetizers and the cookies for dessert, and Nepali main courses—matter paneer, daal-bhat, channa masala, roasted spiced chicken, tomato achar. We played Yankee Swap (always a crowd pleaser), lots of conversation, Christmas music, and other games.

Now it is on to the family Christmas. P and I will be traveling back to central New York on Thursday morning. For any of those who celebrate… happy holidays and happy new year!

Christmas Cards

Sorry I’ve been missing for a little bit. It’s actually a little embarrassing, but I’ll be honest… I started watching the television series “Lost” through the streaming video available online on Netflix, and I’ve been quite hooked. It’s tough to stop watching when the weather stinks outside, the days are short and dark, the apartment is chilly, and I know there is another episode waiting for me if I push the play button from under the warm blankets. Plus mysterious island intrigue and never-ending episodic cliff hangers don’t help ;)

In order to make myself feel less guilty about spending most of the weekend glued to the computer screen, I tried to kill two birds with one stone and do my Christmas cards while watching.

This is a holiday tradition I really enjoy, but I think P finds it all very amusing. Every year I buy the cards and stamps, organize a long list, track down missing addresses and spend hours writing out cards and envelopes (yeah I know, I’m not in the 21st century with electronic address lists and printed labels). I stack up the finished cards, have P sign, then I seal them and send them on their way.

“You’re such an American,” he was teasing me the other day while I passed him a big stack to sign (while “Lost” was briefly paused, of course). I usually try to get him to write more than just his name but he generally answers with, “you said everything I would have said anyway.” I think he finds it interesting that most cards come to us with very little writing in them, usually just a quick “merry Christmas, happy new year” and signature, so he doesn’t really “get” the whole purpose if the card isn’t really saying much.

“It’s the gesture.” I explain, “someone was thinking about you, wanted to stay connected. It’s the thought that counts.” Conversely, sometimes we receive cards with newsletters in them giving a long year in review. I particularly enjoy these, especially with people I haven’t been in much contact with, and I think P is amused by the extremes between the two types of cards one can receive. Often family will send cards with pictures of their children, and those are nice to see as well.

I think what also amuses him is the process. Deciding who gets a card and who doesn’t, and if he notices changes to “the list” from year to year he likes to comment on it, “ohhhh… so and so didn’t make it on the list! What did they do?” As my beloved Wikipedia says, “Because cards are usually exchanged year after year, the phrase ‘to be off someone’s Christmas card list’ is used to indicate a falling out between friends or public figures.”

This isn’t necessarily the case for me—sometimes it depends on if I send lots of  cards over the years but never get one back, then people might get bumped from “the list” with no hard feelings (particularly if I’m running low on cards or stamps). Occasionally someone isn’t meant to be on “the list” but we receive a card out of the blue, and they then make it back on “the list.” Sometimes people don’t get a card because they wouldn’t expect one (this happens when I’m running low on supplies as well), or if their address isn’t confirmed, or if we finally just lost touch. I always ask if P wants to add someone to “the list” but he thinks of the annual project as my own, so he usually lets me ultimately decide. I’m always willing to add if he is interested.

My friend AD (I should probably change his name to Tundal45) “gets” the Christmas card thing. He started sending them a few years back because it was a great “networking tool” to stay connected with people he knew but didn’t get to interact with on a daily basis. He sends the cards to friends, mentors and other important people in his life because it is nice to have an excuse once a year to touch base. I’m definitely of the same opinion. Even if I don’t send a newsletter (I know, surprising, I bet you guys pegged me for the long Christmas newsletter type. Not yet, but I’m sure someday), and I only write a brief tidbit in the card, at least the person knows that they were in our thoughts and the connection continues.

Not to mention, we get a lot of junk mail. With the advent of e-bills, 95% or more of P and my regular mail is junk. It is disappointing as an adult to know most of our mail is shredded and recycled. As a kid I loved running out and checking the mailbox, I was on a first name basis with our mail lady, I had multiple pen pals from around the world and I loved getting personal cards, postcards and letters through the post. The feeling lingers, and I enjoy this time of year when I can sift through the junk we receive on a daily basis and see colorful envelopes with handwritten addresses. I enjoy opening them, reading them, and taping them up around the doorway in the living room, like my Grandmother, to be displayed until New Years.

So… thanks to my “Lost” addiction, 99% of my Christmas cards are in the mail. So be on the lookout (you know who you are), and I’ll be on the lookout for mine :)

Christmas in December… Only!

Can I talk about a pet-peeve for a moment? Okay… (deep breath in, deep breath out).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a scrooge. I like Christmas a lot, I really do, particularly now that Christmas is representative of a family cultural tradition that never existed for P before, it has more meaning for me. I never felt that the holiday had a personal spiritual pull, but I can really embrace the cultural aspects of it. I try not to buy into a lot of the consumerism that surrounds the holiday, but I like different pieces of it… like Christmas carols, and cookie baking, and putting up my fake tree that sits in storage most of the year. I enjoy getting holiday cards and sticking them around the doorway in the living room like my Grandmother does…

Christmas *doesn't* need to be celebrated all year round...

But one thing that drives me bonkers every year is how early the Christmas “season” starts. I was really bothered when I walked into our local grocery store on October 31st and all the Halloween candy had been replaced with candy canes and red and green foil-wrapped chocolates. October 31st! They couldn’t even wait for Halloween to be officially over! The next day the grocery store replaced the pumpkins outside with little evergreen centerpieces with red and green bows, and not too long after that I saw Christmas trees being sold in an empty lot on my way home from work.

My sisters and my mother’s family are of the opinion that the Christmas “season” begins when Santa arrives at the end of the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving. As kids we used to watch it while at my grandmother’s house, and it was always very exciting to see Santa arrive. I’m fine with that… at least Thanksgiving is almost December. But October? Come on people.

I try to refrain from any Christmas celebrating (tree decorating, carol-listening, holiday parties, etc) in my house until December 1st. I’m happy to keep the Christmas season confined to one month, and only one month of the year. Otherwise I feel it is too much. I’m glad that I don’t work in retail… my sister who has a part-time job at a department store says they have been listening to Christmas songs for a month now, and in college I worked at a bookstore that had so much extra holiday stuff crammed in it was hard to walk around! At least we don’t have a tv so we don’t see a lot of the holiday advertisements in between programs.

P trys to help keep me to my promise of “Christmas in December Only.” Before we departed the apartment for our Thanksgiving roadtrip south he warned me that he hid the Christmas cds so I wouldn’t feel tempted, and when scanning the radio if I fell on a station playing carols we would move on to a different station. It’s not to be mean or un-festive, we are just trying to control how overblown the Christmas holidays have become. Let Halloween and Thanksgiving have their time and space, Christmas already has a full month.

It is hard to think of the Christmas season from the perspective of a family who never celebrated the holiday, but I would imagine for those who don’t celebrate it must get annoying when everywhere you turn there is something Christmas oriented, even if it is dressed up as “non-denominational holiday” festivities. It is truly hard to escape. However, I’ve grown up in a household that has fully embraced Christmas, so I even have a hard time imagining life without it.

For example: The first Christmas season that P and I were dating he came back with me from school so that he could meet my family before flying home to Nepal for his first visit in almost three years. My mother had a hilarious conversation with him, because she just couldn’t fathom a culture that didn’t celebrate Christmas. It went something like this:

Mom: “So, in Nepal-India, what do you do for Christmas?” (for a while she didn’t realize they were two separate countries).

P: “My family is Hindu, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: “Yeah, but, you must put a tree up or something, right?”

P: “Nope, we are Hindu, so we don’t celebrate the holiday.”

(This goes on for a little while, with different pieces of Christmas iconography…)

Mom: “But you must have lights… I mean, everyone has lights… like in your window?”

P: “No… we don’t put up lights. We aren’t Christian, so we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: “But everyone puts lights! You don’t put lights for Christmas? Not even the stores? The stores must!”

P: (sensing my mom just couldn’t understand, he compromises…) “Well, maybe in some of the stores in the tourist district, but otherwise not really. A lot of people are Hindu or Buddhist, so most people don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: (grasping on to something…) “ah, see that sounds right… at least the stores celebrate…”

So the point I am getting at is, December 1st has come and gone, thus officially opening the Christmas season in my house. This week the tree will go up and the carols will play. But don’t come knocking on my door November 3rd expecting any Christmas cookies!

Cranberries and Thanksgiving Dinner

I was chatting with S about Thanksgiving earlier today. P and I are going to travel south to visit family next Thursday for Thanksgiving but will stop over at R and S’s place for our usually visit. Since S’s parents are in the US this year for the holidays, R thought it might be fun to plan a Thanksgiving dinner on Black Friday when P and I are driving back north.

I asked what was on the menu, and S replied, “turkey.”

“What else?” I asked, “Sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows on top? Green peas and pearl onions? Mashed potatoes? Cranberry sauce?”

S: “I don’t like most of those.. but sure, I want to celebrate Thanksgiving…”

Me: “So what is your plan besides turkey… daal bhaat?”

S: “No… maybe you should be put in charge of making the other things since you know them…just make sure that they are not bland—like in typical Thanksgiving dinner—my parents don’t like that. We should use flavor, for instance we will have a Turkey, but it will have Nepalese spice on it… it will be different.”

Me: “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a real American Thanksgiving dinner? It would be a cultural experience.”

S: “Trust me they hate real American dinner… they had bad experiences.”

This makes me a bit sad. I’m always willing to try different food. I guess it is different with older people, but it still makes me sad. I don’t know if it is easier to make the jump from “bland” food to “spicier” food then the other way around, but (in my mind) a potato is a potato whether it is covered in garlic, salt and cumin or if it is mashed with butter.

Me: “I guess we could ‘Nepali-fy’ things… we could make mashed potatoes that taste like veg momo filling, and we could make green peas like mattar paneer.”

S: “Yeah, and we should skip the sweet potatoes… that will work.”

Me: “Well then, I’m still bringing the cranberry sauce… because even if you don’t eat it, I will!”

As I explained to S, there are two types of cranberry sauce. There is the sauce that is more traditional… more “sauce”-like and berry-filled… and well, then there is the “sauce” which is more like jelly. Growing up we would rotate Thanksgivings each year, so that some years we were with my dad’s family and some years we were with my mom’s.

More "traditional" cranberry sauce... see the berries?

My dad’s family is more “into” cooking. This was the side of my family where my grandmother baked an assortment of pies for the holidays, and lots of homemade snacks (cookies, doughnuts, etc) were made by relatives and brought to the gathering for people to munch on throughout the weekend. This side of the family also had the more “traditional” berry-filled cranberry sauce.

On my mom’s side, people aren’t really into cooking… which is actually kind of amusing. See, when my great grandmother (“Nanny” as she was referred to) first came to the US from Ireland, she just happened to come along at the right time and in the right place to land a job as a cook for JD Rockefeller at his estate near Tarrytown, NY. As the family story goes, the cook before Nanny was a Swede with a hot temper, and chased the butler with a kitchen knife. Rockefeller sacked her, and found Nanny. As part of her training she took cooking classes in New York City, and made Rockefeller’s 90th birthday cake. Anyway, by the time she left the position and married she was in her 40s, and when my grandmother (an only child) was born, I guess Nanny was just sick of cooking. Thus she didn’t pass on a lot of cooking skills to my grandmother, who in turn, didn’t pass on a lot of cooking skills to her seven children (including my mom). Holidays at their house are still filled with lots of food… but it is mostly store bought snacks.

I love it! Can you see the ridges!! And the "plopping" splatter?

One thing in particular that they always had was the store bought canned cranberry sauce, and for some reason I always loved it, and preferred this one to the “real” stuff. I get such a kick out of it… the “sauce” comes in an aluminum can and doesn’t really have any traces of “berry” anywhere… it’s a cranberry colored mushy-solid flavored jelly, that slides out of the can with a sucking sound and retains the can shape after being plopped on the plate… can ridges and all! After sliding the “cranberry sauce” out of the can, you kind of knock it over and then slice it up. I love it, I think it is hysterical, and tasty, even if it is just over-processed jelly.

Anyway… that is my Thanksgiving cranberry story of the day. You bet I’ll bring a can to S and R’s place!