Tag Archives: cultural traditions

Monsoon Wedding Part II- Begins with the Bride

P and I missed the Supari, but since we planned to be around for the rest of the ceremonies, we didn’t think it was too big a deal. At the time we were still on our Solukhubu trek, but things became tense when we got stuck in Lukla and I was worried we would miss larger chunks of the wedding.

The Supari (as it is known in Newari culture) is a type of engagement ceremony, or at least a formal announcement/acceptance of the relationship. The bride’s family isn’t able to proceed with any of the wedding parties until the supari has occurred.

Supari is the Nepali word for betelnut, and the ceremony bares its name because the nut has a central role. The groom’s family travels to the bride’s family for the first time, bringing gifts (we will see these gifts again later). Traditionally they brought 4-6 betelnuts in little pouches for the family as well as sindoor which is used during the “actual” wedding ceremony (swayambar), although now more gifts have been added over time in addition to the betelnuts. The bride’s family provides refreshments while the groom’s family gives the gifts, and the bride is essentially sitting pretty so the groom’s family can check her out. Interestingly enough the groom is not allowed to come to this ceremony at all. Poor S spent his evening sitting out in the car during R’s supari since he wasn’t able to be part of the ceremony, until a friend came along and took him out for a beer.

S's mom gives R blessings (tikka) during Supari. During the entire wedding process (days and days) R could only wear clothing in shades of red.

A few days after the supari… and luckily once we returned from Lukla, R decided to have some cousins and aunties over to put henna on our hands. Bridal henna is not a Nepali tradition, and isn’t traditionally part of the wedding preparations as it is in many parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However Nepali brides are starting to use henna because of pop culture influences like Bollywood. I wanted to do it too, even though P’s family seemed confused as to why R was having this done.

My henna application begins

I pose with two of R's cousins with our finished henna... well almost finished. We sat with the henna paste drying on our hands for hours... occasionally applying a lemon juice/sugar mixture which supposedly helped the henna dye to darken and permeate the skin better

While we were getting our hands henna-fied, R’s brother and cousins were helping to fold hundreds of invitations. Most of these invitations are hand-delivered a few days before the ceremony. The invitations are organized into bundles and given to various friends and family members who know others and they spread through the community it that way.

The Henna Evening was a nice way to get to know the bride’s family before the formal wedding began. The women bonded, and during the wedding itself it felt like we had a special code… occasionally I’d flash my henna-ed palm at one of R’s cousins or aunties, and they would flash it back like a secret greeting.

Shortly thereafter R’s family had the bride’s reception. Both the groom’s family and the bride’s family have wedding receptions, but the difference is that during the groom’s reception the couple is already married and both the bride and groom are present. However the bride’s reception occurs before the marriage ceremony (probably because traditionally the bride is married away into another family, so the bride’s family has to have their party before she leaves)… and since the bride and groom don’t traditionally meet before the “actual” wedding that means the bride presides over the reception without the groom. She sits on a platform at the front of the reception while friends and family come up to congratulate her and bring gifts.

I get my chance to pose with the lovely bride

From left to right: P's mom, me, R, P's dad, J Phupu, and P's cousin. P is the photographer so he isn't present :(

The thing that is probably most shocking to the average American is the number of people that attend these various receptions. Average American weddings are around 100-150 people. Average Nepali weddings have hundreds more–  between 400-600, and remember there is more than one party! The sheer numbers are a bit boggling. One friend’s brother had 1200 people. Can you imagine?

Most weddings are buffet style, so the organizers don’t have to worry so much about seating, and who is eating what, or even RSVPs, like in American weddings. That’s how friends and neighbors of invitees can be randomly invited along as well. (remember “invited to the wedding…“?)

Monsoon Wedding Part I

Yesterday R and S celebrated their one year wedding anniversary. That means a year ago today I was deep into a weeklong procession of activities (in sticky hot pre-monsoon, then monsoon, Kathmandu and Chitwan weather)  to honor our good friends and their union with each other. Since summer is wedding season, I figured it was about time to write about what a traditional Nepali wedding looks like. Our friends are Newari, so some of the wedding details are specific to Newari culture, but it gives a good idea of how big of an event a wedding in Nepal can be.

I plan to break the discussion of R and S’s wedding into six blog posts with lots of pictures. Here was the basic schedule of events:

Supari– engagement ceremony (“supari” is the Newari version, Chetris do one that is a little different called “sai pata”)
Bride’s Reception
Janthi– groom’s procession (can happen before or after wedding ceremony… for R and S it happened both times)
Swayambar– “actual” wedding after this ceremony they are considered married
Bidaai (in Newari, “pita biee”) bride’s family says goodbye to bride
Janthi (reprise)
Anmaune-groom’s family welcomes the bride
Sagun– (Newari) more bride welcoming
Groom’s reception
Mukh Herne– (Newari) “Face Looking” ceremony, welcoming groom to bride’s home and conclusion

All of this happened over the course of 7 days. So stay tuned, you’re invited to the story.

I look at R and S's wedding invitation. Most were in Nepali but luckily they had a small number of English language invites!

More “Nepali” than a “Real” Nepali?

Let me start out with a video clip… thanks to “Blonde Bahu” who recently introduced me to “Goodness Gracious Me” a British-Indian sketch comedy group from the 90s.

Phew, I’m not that bad (at least I hope not! ha!), but as the saying goes what makes humor funny is that it comes with a little “kernel of truth.” It has been discussed on this and other blogs before about how foreigners (non-South Asians) are sometimes more interested (perhaps “enthusiastic” is the better word) in embracing aspects of South Asian culture than a native South Asian living abroad might be. Of course this clip is a highly exaggerated version (perhaps there are people out there that go that “native”) but I’m sure we all do it to some degree or another…

(Although, on a side note, sometimes I feel like my family thinks I act like the person in this video—I promise you, I don’t—but I’m still pretty sure that my participation and interest in Nepali culture weirds them out a bit and anything “different” gets hyperbolized in their minds and blown a little out of proportion).

Anyway, one such example (in my own life) of the “outsider enthusiast” versus the “insider non-enthusiast” (for lack of a better term) is the female fasting festival of Teej… I discussed this back in August (you can re-read the post here). Gori Girl left a thought provoking comment on the post:

I think it’s a very interesting (and important) point you bring up about the outsider/insider perspective on “borderline” (not the right word, but I’m inarticulate at the moment) cultural practices.

I feel like many of the younger South Asians I meet – both men and women – are trying to distance themselves from cultural practices they grew up with because they see them as unfeminist or “too ethnic” – and then they’re bemused (or sometimes offended) by the Western significant others of South Asians (almost always women) trying to bring these practices into their lives.

In some ways the tone of these conversations/remarks remind me of the generation split between the “original” feminists – people of my mother’s generation – and today’s younger women. The older feminists, I think, felt they had to work outside the home, be successful in business while raising a family, etc, in order to prove that they were just as capable as men. In contrast, I feel like a lot of women of my generation feel like there’s nothing to prove, and thus have no problem with quitting work to raise a family. I suspect South Asians might see a similar reversal to acceptance of various rites in a generation or two to a more balanced approach.

Other examples I’ve seen between “outsider” enthusiasts vs. Nepali community non-enthusiasts: I’ve been in situations where we have hosted a Nepali oriented event (such as P’s Bratabandha) and only the Americans showed up in sari while the South Asians were wearing jeans or other American clothes. Likewise, in our household it is usually me that encourages P to keep up with different festival traditions (“Hey! It’s Lakshmi Puja… let’s light diya candles and draw Lakshmi feet on the floor!”) because I find these traditions interesting, different and fun, and I want to learn about them myself so I can explain to potential children someday what the different festivals are all about, and the stories behind them, and I want to take part in the cultural experience too.

In my opinion, when you are living in a dominant culture (the US for us), you have to work harder at accentuating the non-dominant culture if you want to keep a balance. If you don’t go out of your way to acknowledge the passing of events, or cultural traditions, it is easier for non-dominant cultural processes to get lost in the mix of daily life. It doesn’t mean you have to wear salwaar kameez everyday and tikka around town and speak in a fake South Asian accent like the woman in the video, but it’s okay to go to your significant other’s cousin’s wedding in a sari if you want to, why not?

So I just wanted to take a moment– maybe start a discussion about where others might see these types of things in their own lives, perhaps laugh at ourselves a little (yeah—I like getting dressed up in Nepali dress when I get the chance for weddings and parties, even if I have to encourage my neighbors to do so too so I don’t look a little silly), and remember that being in an intercultural relationship is all about compromise and finding the right balance.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

As I’ve noted before, my family takes pride in its Irish heritage. My maternal grandfather immigrated from Ireland when he was in his 20s, and my maternal grandmother’s parents were from the same county in western Ireland as my grandfather. On my father’s side the connection goes back farther, but they still celebrate their Irish roots. Thus St. Patrick’s Day in my family has always been a big deal.

At the very least, one has to wear green on March 17th to celebrate. When my little sister was younger, she used to go all out (she probably still does, I’ll have to ask), painting her face the colors of the Irish flag, and wearing shamrock stickers, Irish flags and other Irish paraphernalia all over her body on St. Patrick’s Day. As kids my dad was president of the local Ancient Order of Hibernians club, and we would help out by making corned beef sandwiches and “boiled” dinners (boiled cabbage, carrots, and potatoes with corned beef) at the club, with Irish music blaring from the stereo, while we served people dressed head-to-toe in green.

Since we always did something on St. Patrick’s Day, it took me a long time to realize that not everyone around the world celebrated the day. When I was in elementary school I had an Indian pen pal who lived in Malaysia. I asked him what he did for St. Patrick’s Day and he told me (much to my elementary school surprise) that there weren’t many Irish people in Malaysia, so they didn’t celebrate (wha?). Then when I lived in France, I wished everyone a “bon fete de St. Patrice!” to which most people responded, “But my name’s not Patrick.” (since in France each day has a saint associated with it, and on the saint’s day associated with your name you wish people a “bon fete”). Since it wasn’t a big deal there either, I decided to go all out… totally dressing in green and making sure to wish everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day anyway whether their name was Patrice or not.

P has celebrated several St. Patrick’s Days with us– a few at the old AOH club we grew up at. I can’t say that he is a big fan of “boiled” Irish dinners he used to eat the cabbage, potatoes, carrots and ham… and I’d eat the cabbage, potatoes and carrots. The lack of “spice” (unless you count salt and pepper) disappoints the palate if you are used to more flavorful fair, but he tries it none-the-less.

So if you get the chance, try to take a moment to do something to commemorate the day… have a slice of Irish Soda Bread, try a boiled dinner, listen to some Irish music, but on a green shirt, or at least enjoy a beer… because as they say at the Guinness Factory, “Everyone is Irish on March 17th!”

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.

Saying GoodBye To KTM

(Continuation of Mandirs in Nepal)

So after all the sightseeing, rice eating, clothes buying, and temple visits the four days passed really quickly and it was time to go. My flight was scheduled to leave in the evening from KTM, and I had a quick flight to Delhi where I was going to have to spend the night sitting on the floor of the airport waiting lounge, and then I had an early morning flight from Delhi back to the US.

Before going out for our last morning of sightseeing (to Pashupatinath and to P’s old high school), P’s whole family helped me pack. It was both awkward and kind—awkward because it felt like an encroachment on my personal space… other people going through my bags and stuffing the pockets… good thing I hid my underwear ahead of time in anticipating of this type of helpfulness; but also it was sweet… they wanted to help me, and they seemed sad to see our short time together end.

During the process, I emptied my bag of gifts. Prior to leaving for India, I wanted to bring gifts for his family, but our program was set up in such a way that we had to schlep our bags around all semester as we moved to various locations throughout North India, thus I didn’t want to bring a lot from the US or I’d be carrying it everywhere. I settled on a nice jar of local maple syrup (when you come from this part of the country… it’s a natural gift idea, even if foreigners don’t always know what to do with it), and decided that while I was in India I’d look around for gifts. I wound up buying a sari for both Mamu and J Phupu (although at the time I had no idea how to buy a sari, or what was considered a good quality sari… so my selections probably weren’t great), a pair of camel leather shoes for his dad (although the pair I attempted to wear weren’t a big hit), a woolen vest for his grandfather (which I think was a big hit) and a set of Rajasthani styled puppets for his little cousin (which was a semi hit). Since his mother is very religious, I brought some red and yellow powder used for tikka blessings from a special temple in Rajasthan and some water from the Ganges. Again, I’m not sure how these gifts went over… but I hoped that it was the thought that counted.

After the family finished packing my bag we went out and around town (dressed in my new outfit: jeans, black sweater, purple scarf). On our way home afterwards P’s dad jumped out of the taxi and said he would meet us at home, which I found curious.

As the time approached for me to leave for the airport, I noticed that the family had gathered some material down in the living room… bananas, a silver platter with red tikka powder, P’s dad came back with a small plastic bag which I later found was filled with a beautiful flower garland…

I can't find the pictures from my original trip, but here are some "goodbye" pictures from this past June... P's grandfather gives us garlands, P's dad gives us tikka, and P's aunt gives us tikka and banana. The final picture is P's dad, P, me and P's mom.

One thing I really like about Nepali culture are rituals surrounding departure. When someone leaves it is a bit of a production, and it makes you feel special (at least that’s how I felt). When someone leaves the whole family gives you tikka as a blessing… and bananas and flowers, and a flower garland. Other families, particularly Buddhist, give white or ivory colored prayer shawls called katas. When you go to the airport in KTM you can see all your fellow passengers (at least the Nepalis, not necessarily the tourists) wearing thick tikkas and flowers, or kata, hugging relatives and saying good bye.

Example of a Kata... the Dalai Lama giving one to a visitor

After being tikkaed and garlanded, I was tucked into a taxi while Mamu and J Phupu started to tear up, and P’s dad and little cousin brought me back to the airport. Due to the civil unrest in Nepal, family and friends of travelers are not allowed into the airport, but this seems like a relatively easy rule to get around. If you know someone who works at the airport, then you could call in a favor and get some passes… which P’s dad did, and they sat with me until it was time for me to go through security and head out to my plane.

Tip- if you want to bring your flower garland home… even though it isn’t totally kosher to do so, I know P has done this before… take it off and put it in your checked luggage, because otherwise the security people take it before you enter the inner waiting lounge. I imagine the security clerks have lots of nice flowers that they get to bring home everyday, and I was sad when they took mine away.

I didn’t want to wash my tikka off, even when my flight touched down back in Delhi. Every time I caught a glimpse of my reflection it reminded me of my time in Nepal, and it made me happy. I wore the tikka all the way to London before I eventually had to wash it off (from both a necessity to properly wash my face, and probably a little bit from the stares I was getting).

I entered the Delhi airport and had to go through security. Since Nepal is considered more of a domestic rather than an international flight, I couldn’t wait in the international terminal, until my flight time was closer early the next morning and I could properly check-in. Prior to leaving for KTM I had checked around the airport and found an overnight waiting lounge across the street from the departure area where people in my situation could have a reasonably comfortable place to sit. I also had found a storage facility for extra bags, which I left in India instead of taking to Nepal. Upon my return, I walked down the block to the airport storage facility, where I stumbled upon a few meandering cows… “yep, I’m back in India” I thought.

Little did I know that Delhi in December can be prone to thick, soupy, dense-as-the-dickins fog. Luckily my flight from Nepal had made it in the evening before, but my morning flight didn’t look good. We were grounded for an additional 17 hours due to an impossible, impenetrable fog (I swear… you could swim in it if you wanted it was so thick!), but eventually the plane made it out, so that P could pick me up at the airport in New York the night before Christmas Eve.

Thus concludes the tale of my first trip to Nepal.

A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?

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 :)