Tag Archives: cultural traditions

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!

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Notes on the “Red Wedding”

Okay, I couldn’t hold back… hope you don’t mind me double posting today…

And to keep with the musical theme–

The lyrics are actually not that positive about American women, but it has a catchy tune.

Again please, I poll you dear readers, for feedback. Have I added too little, too much? I’m I missing anything glaring? Does it sound okay or weird? Suggestions??

Notes on a “Red Wedding:”

Nepal is a small but diverse country– with a population of just 30 million, there are nearly 40 ethnic languages spoken within its borders–thus it is not surprising that there are many different wedding traditions which can vary by caste and ethnic group. 80% of the population is Hindu, so many common wedding traditions include Hindu rituals.

In Nepal, wedding ceremonies include several rituals and receptions which can sometimes last up to a week. However, these rituals are now often condensed into a shorter ceremony when conducted outside of Nepal.

Before the ceremony

Wearing Red– the bride wears a red sari, traditionally chosen by the groom’s family (hence “red” wedding). The bride’s look for such a wedding is to appear ornate and highly decorated. Jewelry can be very heavy and is often costume, and intricate henna designs, tikkas, and make-up add to the decoration. Clothing and even shoes are often highly intricate and decorated with jewels/embroidery and contrasting colors (most often red, green and yellow/gold). Conversely white wedding brides attempt to have a more minimal, subtle, simplified look.

For the ceremony the groom wears a daura suruwal and Nepali topi hat which is very typical of traditional Nepali male clothing. Whereas saris are more pan-South Asian, daura suruals and the its distinctive dhaka fabric are solely Nepali.

Back in Nepal the groom’s family comes in a procession to the bride’s family in a parade called the “janthi” which often includes music and dancing. Family members of the janthi often wear matching clothes (saris, etc). This isn’t as common with Nepali weddings in the US for logistical reasons.

Ceremony

The ceremony is conducted by a Hindu priest. Often the prayers in the ceremony are in the Sanskrit language (Sanskrit is to Hindi and Nepali what Latin is to French and Spanish). During the course of the ceremony the priest will often break from prayer to ask details about the bride and groom such as their ancestors’ names to include in the ritual blessings.

In addition to the bride and groom, sitting on the altar with the priest are both sets of parents. Each set sits next to their child and contributes to the ceremony by performing tasks as indicated by the priest– this includes touching rice, flowers, water, oil and fruits to their foreheads and various ritual objects on the altar.

The pivotal part of the ceremony comes when the bride and groom exchange flower garlands and the groom gives a wedding pote (beaded necklace) to the bride. A long thin white cloth is then extended from the bride’s forehead to the altar and the groom sprinkles orange sindor powder from the bottom of the cloth up to the part in the bride’s hair. The third time that the sindor is sprinkled from the bottom of the cloth to the bride’s head is the moment the bride and groom officially become married.

After this section of the ceremony the priest lights a fire and the bride and groom make agreements to each other as husband and wife, often throwing rice into the fire as part of the ritual. Depending on the tradition, the bride and groom are sometimes tied together and they circle around the fire 7 times, since in Hindu culture a marriage isn’t just for one lifetime, but for seven.

In Nepali culture feet are often taboo– it is considered rude to point your feet at someone, and offensive to touch someone with your feet. However, when showing great respect, especially to an elder, it is customary to bow and touch their feet. During the ceremony the bride may touch the feet of the groom, and the bride and groom might touch the feet of their parents and vice versa.

Reception

During Nepali receptions the bride and groom often sit on chairs at the front of the room, sometimes with family members, and wedding guests come up to greet and congratulate them. This is often when gifts are given, in person, to the bride and groom. Common gifts include flowers or money in denominations of +1 (21, 51, 101, etc) since the +1 is considered auspicious.

Food is served buffet style at the reception. If the reception is taking place at a Hindu temple alcohol and meat are not allowed.

During the ceremony the altar is considered a temple area, so all the participants on the altar have to take off their shoes. One tradition is for the bride’s sisters to steal the groom’s shoes and demand money for their return. He can’t get them back during the reception until he has satisfied the sisters with an appropriate monetary reward.

Also traditionally the bride might play a few games with her mother-in-law as a way to welcome the new bride to the family. These games might include sifting through a large bowl of uncooked rice to see who can find a coin, nut or fruit first. These games would often be played when the mother-in-law welcomes her new daughter-in-law to the family home for the first time. Sometimes these games are played at the ceremony/reception if the family doesn’t live together in the same house.

Lastly, small wedding favors are usually distributed to the guests. These are often small packages of dried nuts, fruits, spices and chocolate.

Notes on the “White Wedding”

I mentioned in my post white wedding/red wedding that I was making a website with ceremony information and places to stay, etc, for our guests. In order to  help guests learn more about the different cultural traditions (hey, I’m an international educator at heart) I wanted to have a page on Nepali ceremonies and American ceremonies to give an idea of what to expect for people who haven’t attended one before.

Before sharing with friends and family, I wanted to run my information by you, dear readers, first. Have I added too little, too much? I’m I missing anything glaring? Does it sound okay or weird? Suggestions??

So first up, for your approval, is the posting for the “White Wedding…”

(Don’t worry, I won’t include the video– but amusingly enough the first 22 seconds of Idol’s song was the theme music for the Nepali news when P was in high school! Feel free to continue playing while reading the post for extra added effect… Okay, now on to the actual post–)

Notes on the “White Wedding”

The US houses many different cultures with varied rituals and traditions, and so it is hard to describe what a “typical” American wedding looks like. Contemporary weddings also incorporate new ideas and trends unique to a particular couple, so one wedding may look very different than another wedding of someone from a similar background.

However here are a few things to look for in our ceremony:

Before the Ceremony

-Wearing White: Brides generally wear white dresses (hence “white” wedding). Traditionally the color of the dress symbolized the purity of the bride. The groom is not allowed to see the bride before the wedding on their wedding day, and the dress is a surprise. Another tradition is that the bride wears “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue”– the dress is often the “something new” while jewelry or other pieces of the bride’s attire might be “something old” or “something borrowed.”

-Bridal Party: Often the bride and groom have several family members and/or friends who “stand” with them as support during the wedding ceremony. They can be identified by the clothing they wear, which generally matches the color theme and style of the wedding. The female attendants are referred to as “bridesmaids” with the main attendant referred to as the “maid of honor,” and the male attendants are called “groomsmen” with the main attendant referred to as the “best man.” The bridal party walks in with the bride and groom at the start of the ceremony.

-Parents and grandparents of the bride and groom are recognized during the wedding by wearing a flower and processing down the aisle at the start of the ceremony. The father of the bride traditionally walks the bride down the aisle before “giving her away” to the groom at the start of the ceremony. Some cultures, such as in Jewish tradition, have both parents walk the bride down the aisle. Parents typically sit in the front row of seats, but do not stand with the bride and groom at the altar like the bridal party.

Ceremony

American wedding ceremonies can be either religious or secular and can be presided over by a member of the clergy or by a layperson. Religious ceremonies usually include readings from religious texts that are relevant to marriage and love, while secular ceremonies include readings of poems, passages from literature, or cultural blessings on marriage, home, and love.

A common element in weddings (both Christian religious and secular) is the “unity candle”– two smaller candles are lit by the parents of the bride and parents of the groom, the bride and groom then take their respective “family” candles and together light a larger candle to symbolically represent their “unity” as a new family. Other similar rituals include taking separate jars of sand and combining them into a larger vessel to symbolize the new family unit.

The pivotal moment in an American wedding is the recitation of the vows. The bride and groom make a list of promises to each other that they vow to keep until “death do [them] part.” These vows can either be written by the bride and groom or they can use standard vows. After the recitation of the vows the bride and groom exchange their wedding rings which symbolically unite the pair as man and wife.

At the end of the ceremony the officiant declares, “By the power invested in me by the state of _________, I now pronounce you man and wife, you may now kiss the bride.” The kiss concludes the ceremony, with the bride and groom officially married.

Reception

Immediately following the ceremony is a “cocktail hour” where drinks and appetizers are served. Typically during this time the families of the bride and groom take formal wedding photos.

Generally tables are assigned to the guests, and a seating chart is available for people to find their appropriate seats. After the cocktail hour guests are ushered to the main reception area to formally receive the bride and groom.

The reception begins when the bridal party and the bride and groom are introduced. This is sometimes followed by brief toasts given by the maid of honor and best man, and sometimes a parent or relative of the bride or groom. This is followed by the first dance of the evening reserved for the bride and groom to a song of their choosing. Occasionally a “father/daughter” dance for the bride and a “mother/son” dance for the groom are also organized.

After dinner the wedding cake is cut by the bride and groom and the first piece is shared between them before the rest of the cake is sliced and served.

The rest of the evening is filled with eating, drinking, dancing and fun.

(Tomorrow the “Red Wedding” installment…)

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

Panchami and the Bhutanese Refugees

Back from New York, Teej and fasting.

I fasted from about 9pm on Friday night until about 9pm on Saturday so that when we were in the South Asian section of the city (Jackson Heights, Queens) I could eat at the Nepali restaurant with our friends. I found fasting a bit easier this year, I think because we were so busy walking around and doing things in the city that it made the day pass more quickly and kept my mind off of it. Although when someone sitting next to me at the tennis match ate a delicious smelling panini it made my mouth water.

Me at the US Open, Roger Federer in the background, wearing my red Teej clothing

On Sunday P and I woke up early and drove back to Massachusetts so that I could meet up with AS and S-di at the Bhutanese refugee gathering. By the time I arrived one of the pujas had already taken place, but I was quickly ushered to the newly forming ring of women preparing for the second puja.

AS and S-di were dressed in beautiful red saris, AS wearing the same clothes as she wore several months prior for her wedding including potes, bangles, dori and tikka. Since I was walking in straight from the highway, I was only wearing a red shirt and sweater and P’s mother’s red Teej necklace, but at least I had the right colors on.

AS explained that the women had organized a puja for Panchami, which is technically the fifth day (panch= five) but was actually the third day of Teej (Day 1—Daar feast, Day 2—Teej fast)– sometimes I really don’t get the Nepali calendar. The puja is in honor of seven gods represented by seven stars in the sky that are in the shape of a question mark (I’m assuming she was referring to the “seven sisters,” or Pleiades, in Orion’s belt, but maybe she meant a different constellation?). Again, the women generally fast until after the puja, and the puja is supposed to cleanse them of any sins they committed during the year (particularly sins they may have committed breaking menstrual taboos such as touching food, etc).

I enjoy pujas, especially larger chaotic ones. I don’t ever really understand anything that is going on, but there is always a lot of activity and confusion. Yesterday the large cluster of women sat in a circle with the priest (the only man in the group), who had spread before him an assortment of puja paraphernalia such as flowers and flower petals, fruits, rice, water, and incense. As the priest chanted prayers the women would pass around paper plates/bowls with flowers, water, or rice. I’d periodically be prompted to take a small handful of flower petals or water, hold it between my hands (in the namaste gesture), drip the water on my head, or touch the petals to my forehead, and then throw the petals into the middle of the circle.

At one point I was given a small plate on which  I  had to place a banana, apple, rice, flowers, water dyed with red tikka powder, and coins, and I offered it to the priest as a blessing. Even if I’m unsure of what to do, the other participants are usually willing to share or help me out, passing me handfuls of rice or miming the hand gestures I should follow.

Near the end of the puja the women stood, and started shuffling clockwise around the pile of puja material while the priest chanted, and plates with apples stuffed with handfuls of incense were lit as an arti and burned like candles. We were supposed to circle the altar seven times (but I might have only made it around three), and after the priest circulated through the crowd giving post-puja red tikkas.

Here are a few pictures from the event—

women sitting in the circle near the priest

AS (left) explains a few nuances of the puja as I'm passed a bowl of water. The priest's peach-pink-gray topi hat is seen to the left.

Listening to the priest for the next step. S-di is in the red sari with green pote to the left

Center of the puja activity-- bananas, flowers, yogurt, incense, apples, oranges, money, rice, nuts, even glass bangles

Giving offerings to the priest

Apple arti

Circling the puja area. You can tell the married women from the unmarried women by their necklaces (or lack there of).

Puja aftermath

And apparently a Nepali website (Sajha.com) captured me in action too-- chatting with AS and S-di

And posing for pics! AS, me, S-di, and an acquaintance of S-di's

For more views of Teej you can check out Nepal News video clip on celebrating in KTM this year.

It’s Time Again for Teej

It is time again for Teej, the Nepali festival where women (from some of the ethnic groups in Nepal) fast for the long healthy lives of their husbands.

One of my first blog postings last year was about Teej— what the festival was about and my own personal feelings about participating in the festival.

This year I was quite excited. A few weeks ago several women in the community started planning a gathering so we  (with significant others) could be together during this female centric holiday. S-di was planning a big Daar dinner (the feast before the fast), with lots of music, dancing and merriment (as usual).

Next the plan was to be together for the fast on Saturday– relaxing, dressing in red, and going to the temple to meet with other Nepali women for the puja. Lastly, after breaking the fast at midnight on Saturday, we would gather on Sunday morning at a community center where the local Bhutanese refugees were planning a special puja to close the festival celebration.

Women in Kathmandu celebrating Teej

Until… I realized that months and months ago I bought tickets and agreed to go with P and some of our male friends to the US Open Semi Finals in New York on the same day as the Teej fast. If the tickets were less expensive, or the plan more spur of the moment, I would definitely drop it, but I feel kind of locked in. Needless to say I’m really disappointed.

That’s the problem with Nepali festivals. I never know when they are going to happen. I generally know when to start asking about them—Teej is usually in late August or early September. Dashain is in early to mid October (I think this year it’s Oct 8-23rd, but I’m not sure when the main day is yet) and Tihar is in early to mid November (this year Nov 4-7th), but festivals never seem to be on anyone’s radar until they start talking about festival dates and celebrations during conversations with parents back home.

So I think the fast this year will be hard. Waking up early, walking around New York all day, sitting out in the sun, pretending to watch tennis while day dreaming about food. As I’ve mentioned to some of my Muslim friends and students, I have a lot of respect for those who participate in the Ramadan fast. It takes a lot of dedication and will power not to cheat, and for those who come from whole cultures and communities that celebrate, it must be truly challenging to move to a place where there are very few people who commemorate such an important festival. (And by the way, today is Eid-al-Fitr—Mubarak!)

Thus Saturday won’t be as enjoyable participating in the fast essentially on my own instead of with a community, but I’m still going to do it. It’s my last Teej before marriage, and next year will be particularly special as my very first married Teej– which I will be able to prove to the wider Nepali community by wearing my very own red wedding pote. No tennis matches next year for sure!

Our friends AS and N who got married this summer ("Nepali Wedding in New England"). AS is wearing her red wedding pote with golden tillary. She will wear this necklace again tomorrow for Teej.

I also still plan to wear red. Last summer when we were in Nepal P’s mother gave me a few red necklaces and red tikkas that she specifically asked me to wear during Teej. I’m wearing one of her necklaces today in honor of Daar (I’m also wearing a reddish-orange kurta top as well).

So happy Teej to those who might be celebrating, and happy fasting. May the lives of you and your partner (and family) be long, happy and healthy!

Happy Janai Purnima and Raksha Bandhan

I’ll make this a quick posting, since my lunch break is nearly over and work has been busy lately (my international students are back from summer break, and the office is teeming with people and questions!)

Today is Janai Purnima, the day when Brahmin and Chetri men are suppose to change their “janai” or holy thread that they are supposed to wear everyday (although most young men I know in the US don’t generally practice this tradition– but P’s grandfather wears a janai everyday, maybe even his father). Men usually first receive these threads during their Bratabandha ceremony.

Additionally on this day men, women, and children, regardless of caste, tie a sacred yellow thread around their wrist. Men tie the thread around their right hand while  women tie it on their left. Raksha means ‘protection’ and Bandhan means a bond. The wearer believes that it will bring him or her good luck. It is believed that this thread should only be removed on Laxmi Puja, which falls three months later, and should be tied to the tail of a cow (or I’ve been told, in absence of a cow, one can throw the string into a fast moving river, or lacking that, onto a plant– I have last year’s thread tied to a plant in my office!). Supposedly when death comes to the wearer the cow will help him or her  cross the river Bhaitarna, by allowing the dead to cling to her tail.

Similarly on this day sisters give brothers rakhi– decorative braclets– while the brother is supposed to give sweets in return. This helps to solidify bonds of friendship and kinship.

Simple rakhi