Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Cookies!

Over the weekend P and I had our (5th!) annual Christmas party. You can read about the 2010 party HERE and the 2009 party HERE.

To take a different angle this year I was going to write about the annual cookie baking prep for the party, but as usual I was in a rush, and with the clock ticking and my hands covered in dough, I didn’t take any pictures.

As a compromise I decided to share some of my favorite cookie recipes to make up for the lack of beautiful pictures.

I’ve written before about how my own mother wasn’t very big in to (or super good at, sorry mom) cooking or baking–in part because she didn’t learn much from her own mother, who in turn didn’t learn much from hers, because my great-grandmother, having spent much of her young adult life as a cook for JD Rockefeller, was sick of cooking by the time she had my grandmother and never really taught her. Even though my mother wasn’t that great at cooking, she did try… probably because my dad was used to homemade foods from his side of the family. For a few years my mother experimented with homemade apple sauce, and she had a good recipe for apple crisp, and an occasional apple pie. Yet when it came to cakes and brownies they were all “from a box,” and cookies were often made instantly with refrigerated Pillsbury dough (like the kind that comes in a tube and comes pre-designed with red or green dye in the center).

As I’ve also mentioned before, when I moved to Massachusetts I was asked by several new Nepali women friends if I could teach them to make “American desserts.” Since much of my experience was of the boxed variety, I decided to do some recipe sleuthing, and find some tasty things to try.

Before the end of summer I baked my first homemade brownies. Our first Thanksgiving I whipped out my paternal grandmother’s pumpkin and apple pie recipes. And by Christmas I was in full cookie baking mode. I invited several women over, we pulled our kitchen table out from the wall and covered it in aluminium foil, and baked cookies like there was no tomorrow. Since then, this has become a bit of a tradition– I make a ridiculous amount of cookies, and then serve them at our Christmas party a day or two later.

Every year P asks my why I do this– spend money on boxes of butter, and different flavored extracts and packages of sugar– I think he thinks its silly. Yet Christmas cookie time only comes once a year so you are allowed to go a little crazy! At least that’s the excuse I give :)

Last year I made 9 different types, but this year I was a little less ambitious and only made 7. Here are some of my favorites:

Double Lemon Delights

Double Lemon Delights (great with a cup of tea in the morning!)

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1.2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons grated lemon peel, divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 4 to 5 teaspoons lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C)

2. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl; set aside. Beat butter and granulated sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, 1 tablespoon lemon peel and vanilla until well blended. Gradually beat in flour mixture until well blended.

3. Drop 2 tablespoons of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Flatten dough until 2 inches in diameter with bottom of glass that has been dipped in additional sugar.

4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until cookies are just set and edges are golden brown. Cool completely.

5. Combine powdered sugar, lemon juice and remaining 1 tablespoon lemon peel in small bowl; drizzle mixture over cookies. Let stand until icing is set.

Makes between 1-2 dozen.

Irish Soda Bread Biscuits

Irish Soda Bread Biscuits (also tasty with tea, sensing a pattern? Plus I needed a nod to my heritage ;))

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (or 1/4 cup milk and 1/4 tablespoon of lemon juice)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C)

2. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside. In seperate bowl mix butter and sugar until well blended then add the dry ingredients.

3. Mix in egg, pour in milk and mix with fork to make a soft dough, add raisins.

4. Knead into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for an hour. Dough is very sticky and this helps make handling a little easier.

5. On a floured surface roll out dough and either cut into 2 inch squares or triangles, or– use cookie cutters to make fun shaped biscuits (this is what I do!)

6. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until slightly brown.

Makes about 36.

Cranberry Orange Biscuits (also good with tea!)

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened 
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

1. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease cookie sheet or line with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, cream together the white sugar, brown sugar and butter. Stir in the egg, orange juice, orange extract, and orange zest.

3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; mix into the orange mixture. Stir in the dried cranberries.

4. Drop cookie dough by heaping teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, on prepared cookie sheets.

5. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until edges are starting to brown. Cool completely.

Makes about 2 dozen

Cinnamon Polar Bears, photo from baking last year...

Cinnamon Polar Bears

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • small amount of powdered sugar
  • mini semisweet chocolate chips
  • red cinnamon candies (or if you can’t find these, “Hot Tamale” candies cut in half)

1. In large bowl, combine sugar and butter; beat until light and fluffy. Add egg; beat well. Add flour and cinnamon; blend well. Cover dough with plastic wrap; refrigerate 1 hour for easier handling.

2. Heat oven to 350°F (175°C). For each cookie, shape dough into 1 inch ball; place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten slightly. Shape dough into 3 (1/4 inch) balls. Place 2 of the balls above and touching larger ball for ears and 1 ball on top to resemble snout. Flatten slightly.

3. Bake for 11-15 minutes or until firm to the touch. Lightly sprinkle cookies with powdered sugar. Press 2 chocolate chips into each cookie for eyes and 1 cinnamon candy for nose.

Makes 2-3 dozen.

White Christmas

It seems like the northern hemisphere around the world has been blasted with winter weather (a quick read of BBC will give you a rundown of all the cancelled flights and storms in Europe), and I’m happy to report that my little section of New England has finally received a dusting of snow. Not a lot, but enough to say the ground is white (or nearly white, when the grass isn’t poking up through it).

Having grown up in the North East of the US, I’m used to a “white Christmas.” Most of my childhood Christmases were white, even if it didn’t start snowing until Christmas Eve. Part of me used to believe that Santa couldn’t come unless it snowed, and that his sleigh was preceded on Christmas Eve by the fluffy falling flakes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the land of ice and snow (central New York), so this pre-Christmas whiteness has made me happy, it’s about time that it arrived!

So here is a song to get you in the holiday mood:

Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn”

And if you need a little masala… sent to me by NN: Punjabi Jingle Bells

Annual AmericaNepali Christmas Party

You can read about last year’s party HERE.

Saturday night P and I pulled off our 4th annual Christmas party, and although the prep was a bit exhausting, I think it was one of our best! In total there were 32 people in our apartment, some of whom didn’t leave until nearly 2am! :)

The general structure for our party starts with wild cookie baking the night or two before the actual event. I always get over zealous in the cookie making department, and generally fall a bit short of my ultimate cookie goal, but this year I think we did a pretty good job. Out of the 10 batches of cookies I hoped to make, we finished 9, and without realizing it each of the 9 cookies hit a different flavor—we had lemon, coconut, chocolate peppermint, raspberry jam, cinnamon, peanut butter, Irish soda bread, orange cranberry, and ginger molasses!

My "Cinammon Polar Bear" Cookies.... one of the 9 types made for the party

On Saturday the party started around 7 with a round of appetizers and drinks. I debated  up until the last minute  (literally 6 hours before the event when we finally went grocery shopping), whether to have Nepali or American food. In the past my middle sister K has attended and she would bake the Turkey while I would make a Thanksgiving style meal, but the past two years she hasn’t been able to come. Last year I fell back on our old staples of Nepali food because it is so much easier to cook South Asian food in bulk. Yet since the party was in honor of the American side of our household I really wanted to make American food.

Alas, we eventually we settled on a combo–American appetizers: raw veggies and dip, chips and salsa, cheese and crackers; some American entrées: Roasted veggies with garlic and rosemary, sautéed brussel sprouts; some Nepali entrées: two types of chicken curry (drumsticks and chopped meat), cauliflower curry, rice, and kwanti (bean soup); and a random entrée: a recipe inspired by AS—ham, feta and orzo salad. Lastly the dessert was purely American—9 different types of Christmas cookies!

Our Irish friend brought “Christmas crackers” for everyone. Crackers are a tradition in Ireland and England, and they were a great idea for the party. The crackers look a bit like empty toilet paper tubes wrapped in shiny paper. Inside the tubes are paper crowns, silly novelty items, and jokes. You pull the cracker with a friend, with one person holding one end of the wrapping, and the other holding the opposite. When you both pull, the cracker makes a “pop” noise and the gifts fall out. For the rest of the night most of our guests were wearing colorful paper crowns which definitely added to the festivity of the evening!

The next phase of the party was “Yankee Swap.” I think this game can be played by a variety of rules and can go by different names (“White Elephant” is one) but the way we generally play is that people buy a gift that’s usually around $5—the gifts can be humorous and silly, or they can be regular gifts. I write out numbers on little slips of paper for everyone participating and people pull the numbers ouf of a hat so the distribution is random. All the wrapped gifts are put under the Christmas tree before we start. The first person to go can choose any gift from the tree and unwraps it. The second person to go does the same, but has the option to swap with person 1 if they choose. The third person then goes and so on, with each person successively able to swap their gift with anything else that has already been opened (so it is better to get a higher number rather than lower with the exception of person 1). Depending on the gifts available, sometimes a person might wind up with several different gifts due to swapping, but ultimately ends up with one. The last person to go is “number 1” and they can choose to swap any gift from all that have been opened in the entire game.

The group was split this year, with several people giving silly gifts—an orgasmic sound making bottle opener, an “over the hill” themed piggy bank, a candy bra, etc– and many giving more “regular” gifts like tea, coffee mugs, chocolates, etc. The most famous gift of the night was the candy bra, which was swapped around a few times to the cheers of “Candy bra! Candy bra!” Merry Christmas, eh?

The remainder of the night was filled with eating, and more eating, and even more eating, as well as lots of drinking, conversation, Christmas carols and fun.

So whether or not you celebrate the holidays, we wish you season’s greetings from AmericaNepali and a Happy New Year!

PS- anyone have a good Christmas cookie recipe? Wanna swap recipes?

Being Good at Christmas Time

There was a funny post today highlighted on the WordPress homepage called, “Why it’s a bad idea to peek at your presents” and I thought it was time for a confessional post about my own childhood Christmas curiosities, and—er—lack of patience? Too bad I didn’t have a character like the “Dad” in this post to “teach me a lesson,” I had to teach it to myself.

I promise, I don’t do this anymore, but for a few years in my pre-teen days, I fancied myself something of a Christmas-present-secret-agent. I was getting old enough to know the truth about “Santa” and savvy enough to know my parents had to hide those gifts somewhere, and I loved to find them before Christmas and figure out what they were.

It started in the first year or two with the family gifts that began to appear under the Christmas tree in mid-December. Instead of buying gifts for parents and sisters, then hiding the wrapped gifts until Christmas Eve, we would wrap them and put them under the tree shortly after purchasing them. It made the living room all the more “Christmasy” to have a few scatter presents there.

I somehow got the idea that I could get a good sense of  what the present inside the wrapping paper was if I scratched a bit of a hole underneath a gift tag or bow. Between present size, shape, sound (if shaken) and a tiny peep hole peek under the wrapping paper, I could make a pretty good educated guess. No one discovered my “wrapping peep holes” so I felt pretty daring.

The following year I decided to take it a step further, and when no one was around I thought I could sneak a gift to the bathroom, delicately peel off the scotch tape and open the whole edge of a present and see a majority of the box underneath. This gave me an even better idea of what gifts were—but I found that peeling off the tape sometimes ripped the wrapping paper, or pulled off some of the paper design, and the tape wasn’t all that sticky again afterwards—too much chance for discovery!

The year after that I got really bold. I figured that my parents hid the majority of “Santa” gifts in the attic, which was tough to get into when people were around. It was one of those attics that unfolded from the ceiling, you had to pull a draw string to open the wooden “door” and a collapsible set of “stairs” descended to help you climb up into the attic space. The “door” was part of my parents’ bedroom ceiling, and the collapsible “stairs” creaked to high heaven when you pulled them down and straightened them out. No chance of sneaking up there when others were around.

So I hatched a plan—fake sick, stay home from school alone, and spend the day exploring the attic space and checking out the gifts—remember, I fancied myself a secret agent, I was bubbling with anticipation!

Not to mention, my dad had lent me an old rubber stamp making kit that came with an x-acto knife. Due to the tape stickiness issues of the previous year, I theorized I could easily unwrap the attic stash by surgically slicing the scotch tape along the edges of the wrapping paper, unwrap the entire gift, check it out, then refold the paper along the same edges and apply a second layer of tape directly over the tape I had sliced. Presto, who would know?

The night before I was to put my plan into action I started turning on the theatrics… acting tired, rubbing my throat, complaining of achiness. I wanted to set the stage for a “I can’t go to school today mom, I’m feeling rotten” the next morning. And so it went—my sisters were herded out the door to the school bus, my mom left for work, and I stayed at home watching cartoons and sipping vegetable soup.

I waited an  hour or two, just to make sure that no one would come back and “surprise me” while I was frolicking in the attic. Once I felt confident the coast was clear I pulled on the string connected to the attic door, unfolded the creaky wooden ladder/stairs, grabbed the scotch tape and x-acto knife, and scurried up.

My suspicious were correct! The attic was brimming with brightly wrapped boxes of Christmas gifts, tucked amongst the rafters and pink insulation. I spent a good deal of time going through the piles to look for gifts, mindful to keep packages in the right “order” so as not to arouse suspicion. I unwrapped and rewrapped most of my gifts, and even some of my sisters’ gifts, just to see what was there. It was great fun, and once it was over, I felt a sense of pride that I was able to pull off this secret agent mission.

The rest of the day I was excited. I had this big secret. I knew my gifts, but my parents didn’t know I knew, and I knew my sisters’ gifts but they didn’t know I knew either.

However the excitement didn’t last long. After a day or two, I realized that knowing all the gifts kind of ruined the excitement and anticipation of Christmas day. There were no surprises to look forward to, no burning curiosity to keep you up at night wondering, no suspense. As the days ticked closer to Christmas Eve, I realized that by sneaking into the attic and covertly opening the gifts I essentially ruined half the fun of receiving gifts to begin with.

Christmas day I already knew how many gifts would be stacked in the living room. Of course it was nice to receive presents, but my enthusiasm was drained.

That was when I decided I wouldn’t look at presents beforehand again. I enjoyed the anticipation too much.

However somehow my family found out about my sleuthing, and I became notorious for checking out my gifts ahead of Christmas, even though I never did it again. They all expected it, and wouldn’t let me forget it. Even now my younger sister still brings it up.

So sometimes it’s better to be good at Christmas time… but to be safe, maybe parents out there should hide their scotch tape and x-acto knives.

My secret agent kit pretty much looked like this... perhaps I missed my true calling, as a surgeon!

Stockings

My Irish friend encouraged me to write about this topic when he came over for dinner tonight. He helped me put up my Christmas tree on Saturday, and after he left I added the decorations, so tonight he was seeing my full Christmas set up.

Two of the new features to my Christmas decoration collection this year are two hand knitted Christmas stockings with P and my name on them. I explained to our friend that this makes P an “official” member of my family since now he has the official family stocking.

I don’t remember when the tradition started, but my paternal grandmother was an avid knitter. As each of her children married and each new grandchild was born one of their first Christmas gifts was a knitted stocking with the new family member’s name on it, which matched all the other stockings everyone else had. The uncles had a 2-dimensional Santa face, the aunts had a 2-dimensional Mrs. Claus, and all the cousins had small Santa faces with a 3-dimensional beard that puffed out with yarn.

As children we always had our stockings hung over the wood stove downstairs and received small gifts inside. We opened the stocking gifts first before opening the gifts from under the tree.

A few years ago my grandmother passed away, but before she did she gave the stocking pattern to my uncle who also likes knitting. When two of my older cousins married they received new “adult” Mrs. Claus stockings, and their husbands received Santa stockings with their names. When my eldest cousin had a kid the new baby also received a new 3-dimensional Santa stocking.

So I was excited last Christmas to receive our new stockings. I didn’t think we’d get them until we were married, but we have them now. So I guess P is officially part of the “club” now :) (see below).

What I’ve Been Up To…

I’m sorry my posting spree of October became a relatively quite November. As I mentioned at one point, things became pretty busy. Here’s what’s been happening in the American-Nepali Household:

-November meant Tihar celebrations leading into an international educators conference, leading into International Education Week programming, leading into good bye parties and dinners for AS and N, leading into Thanksgiving celebrations (and lots of “on the road traveling” to see family)…

-December meant preparing for the international student council’s biggest event of the year the International Dinner, and now that the dinner is finished, prepping for Christmas, writing out my long list of Christmas cards, and organizing our annual Christmas party in “the household.”

P and I have also been doing a lot of apartment cleaning/rearranging since the departure of our friends. It was a little challenging to completely “settle in” when we first moved to our new place since we didn’t use certain sections of the apartment. Not to mention (frustratingly) there were a lot of small things around the apartment that were broken by previous tenants, that P and I didn’t have time or patience to fix before (don’t get me started on the landlady who lives thousands of miles away and is not interested in fixing these “small” inconveniencies.). I actually spent a good deal of Sunday afternoon on a ladder 12 feet up in the air  replacing venetian blinds and fixing the pulley systems to get them to open and close properly (perhaps working at an engineering college is starting to rub off on me?) Now that the weather is getting cold, being able to close the blinds and keep out the evening draft will  be important!

Lastly, I’ve also been working on wedding stuff—I found a dress for the American ceremony (hurray!), we finally locked in the Nepali ceremony site (another hurray!), and my sister printed “Save the Date” magnets that she designed for us that I am hoping to get out soon (which will be a “hurray!” once they are distributed). I’ve also been working on a website so that invitees can have more information about venues, times, dates, places to stay, etc. I’m hoping to have two pages that explain some of the cultural elements of the “white wedding” and the “red wedding” and for some reason have hit a bit of a wall—I’m not really sure what to include. Perhaps if I have time later today I’ll try to draft something and put it up here for some suggestions. I don’t want to overload people with information, but being an international educator I find the dual ceremonies a “teachable moment” and I want my friends and family to learn more about the traditions involved.

So that’s where I am these days. What are you up to? Any holiday/festivals coming up in your households? Do you have suggestions on what to write for Nepali or American wedding traditions?

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!