Christmas

The elusive Xmas Factor

1:13 PM


It's not the same.

The very sentence on ever expatriates' lips when the topic of Christmas come on the table. It is not the same, and this is an irrefutable truth.
The problem, is that finding the exact thing that makes it "not the same" is a ghost, a shadow, an endlessly chased but not reached rainbow. Nobody has been able to pinpoint what it is that makes Christmas so different in India.

The Climate might seem like the obvious elephant in the room in this odd game of "spot the difference". But, it isn't so. I have friends who come from tropical areas, or even the Southern emisphere. Places were Christmas hardly means dark, gloomy, cold and possibly snowy time. Yet even for those who grew up in an equally warm climate and evergreen surrounding, it is not the same.
I have been in India for a little over a decade now, and I am just really starting to grasp it.

What is not the same, is the very core of it, it's vital essence and spirit. But what makes that so hard to pinpoint is that said core and spirit is as unique as one's DNA. Just like there are no two snowflakes that are alike, there are no two Christmasses that are the same. Each person has their own, and their own meaning for it. Christmas is a live spirit one that probably live in each celebrating soul.

Christmas is like this old friend you get to see once a year, it is familiar, warm, comforting, and honest. For some, it cannot be without eggnog, for others it is incomplete without a chill in the air or a an 8 feet tall real tree. Some swear by twinkle lights, other prefer candles. it frequently means sharing, and being in a crowd of sorts. Yet some feel more comfortable in solitude.
In truth it doesn't really matter what it is, as long as it makes sense to one, and one alone. My Christmas means Swiss cookies, casual gathering of people and simple yet hearty continental food, and red green and gold decorations. To each their own.

When you are an expat, Christmas, that old friend, suddenly reminds you that your entire world has changed in a very drastic way and over a really short period of time. Christmas cease to be that comforting, rarely ever changing buddy. It instead hand you the mirror that let you see how much you and your life has changed, just like that. As I said, Christmas is an honest spirit, and brutally so at time.
This is what makes the holiday so hard on my lot, this is what takes time to cope. I found out that of all the festivals,many traditions I grew up with, Christmas is the one that forced me to introspect the most. Asking me to ask myself very difficult questions :

Who are you? What's your baggage? What do you want to keep? Throw? What are your priorities? What do you want to become? What's your future like?

These are frightening questions. Questions that most will try to avoid being confronted with. They are very personal, and intimidating questions. Questions that do not have a right or wrong answer, or a quick one for that matter. They are the kind of questions you could ponder over a lifetime, or more.
Having to answer them, or rather attempt to do so, force one to constantly reassess their lives, reinvent things, and create new normals. When you move accross the globe, you change, often not really realising it.

And change is scary.

Over the years, I went from dreading Christmas, hating it for being different and not "right", to finally learn to make peace with it.
One simply cannot stay mad at an old friend for simply mirroring their own shortcomings. That, after all, would not be fair at all.

I did introspect, reflected, and reinvented things. I picked up elements of my culture I could not do without, incorporated new ones I was willing to adopt and created a new version of Christmas I can call my own again. I came to be very grateful for that lesson the holiday gave me over the years.
And, sure, it isn't the same anymore. But enough time has passed that I am not even sure I really truly remember what it once was.
You see, old memories tend to fade away when new more vivid ones take their place.

So, yes, it is NOT the same. But I no longer see it as something bad. It just take time to get to that point to get to appreciate it; and a few coping strategies I will perhaps share one of these days.

18 comments

  1. I agree and I also disagree. I think we do have to make do with what we have, but we're allowed to mourn what we do not have. For example, there's little I can (effectively) do to stop my ADULT maid from laughing at my daughter when she helped me address cards and she started drawing Santas.

    When we were living in the US, we went to Diwali parties at various temples, and my husband said they weren't the same. So yes, he said we "had" to experience a Mumbai Diwali. I'd prefer to never experience it again (pollution, etc)... Like-wise, I want my kids to experience an American Christmas.

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    1. Anonymous5:18 PM

      Diwali has three components, clay lamps, rangoli and lakshmi pooja. However, for more most Indians Diwali means fire crackers and noise. When I went to Shirdi, I found that they celebrate diwali in a traditional manner there. Nobody uses candles or electric lights decorate their houses with clay lamps and rangoli. It looks most beautiful. Even with all the crackers they have maintained the essence of the festival which we have forgotten.

      Apple

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    2. I would have been mad with the maid for laughing, laughing at beliefs other than your own because you dont believe in them or think they are stupid is rude, and I would have told her so :(

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  2. Anonymous5:06 PM

    Christmas for me means celebration. I guess it is something to do with that time of the year when it is slightly chilly and new year is round the corner. It is also a time of quiet introspection about what you did in the past year, and yes Rum Cakes with nuts and raisins. There is something sacred about the birth of Christ, Christmas carols and the tree. Special preparations were made for the festival in our school. This preferential treatment was something which I never liked. Back in those days, there was something distinctly "elitist" about it. English medium public schools were making their appearance in Delhi. They were expensive and Christmas and whatever came with it, was part of that culture. Lot of pride was associated with the festival. Colonial legacy, I guess.

    About culture shock, I understand what an expat goes through. They seem to be living two lives. Interestingly, I have read many foreigners have religious problems also, not many, but few do have problems. This comes as a surprise because we thought that many foreigners take keen interest in Hinduism and religion was not an issue with them. Somehow, we cannot associate religious rigidity with foreigners.

    In fact, I am surprised every time when in many foreign talk shows someone explicitly states "Oh, I had a good catholic upbringing", like some kind of badge of honor to reinforce somebody's moral character. This sentence comes up quiet regularly in various talk shows no matter what the subject being discussed. Then I realized may be it is something very important and needs to stressed again and again.

    I have heard that Indians who live abroad face a different problem. They have to struggle not to assimilate in the larger culture and preserve their own caste/religious/community based cultures which are so strong that it even make interactions between Indians of different communities difficult. In many ways they are more conservative than Indians. I have never been abroad, but that is what I have read.

    Apple

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    1. I dont like Rum fruit cake :) I only got to taste it first in India because I think it is a British custom that we don't do in Switzerland. I found it a bit too heavy, we do a lighter cake in central Europe called the "Yule Log" whcih basically is a roll cake covered in buttercream icing to make it look like a wooden log, another reminder of pagan times when a log was thrown in the fire at solstice I guess.

      I have seen Indian abroad, and yes in many ways they are more concervative than Indians in India, I think they are going through the same thing any expat go through after a while, They hang to what their home country was like when they left, they have no way to keep current living outside of it. I am sure there are many things about Switzerland that are changing and I am no longer grasping fully either.

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    2. Americans most definitely do not do fruit cake! You only give a fruit cake to someone as a gag gift! Americans sort of got rid of the rum fruit cake with the tea I guess :)

      On another note:
      When I was 20, I travelled to Finland. My father's family is 3rd generation Finnish and had kept all Finnish. My mother's mother was also raised by Finnish family members, making me 3/4 Finnish. Anyway, my area is known for being a high percentage of Finnish people. When I went to Finland, what I knew was "old fashioned" and the words were out-dated and many of the customs were held true by those who LEFT Finland, but not KEPT in those who were still in Finland. It happens with many cultures.

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    3. Amanda isn't fruit cake a slang term to describe a crazy person in the US?

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  3. I am somehow reminded of the diaspora in our country. Around 10% of the Filipino population work and live overseas, and I'm sure that - while this segment continues to cherish the traditions they grew up with - they've also learned to eventually embrace the best traditions of the countries that adopted them.

    Christmas to me means fond times with friends and family, cool nights, noche buena (the Christmas Eve meal) and parols (Star of Bethlehem lanterns we decorate our places with). :)

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    1. Interestingly, I am already a multicultural child of sort. Both my parents are Swiss, but my dad is Swiss German and my mom Swiss French, so Christmas meant different things to them, the cookies and stuff are pan-Switzerland, we all do it, but to my Mom Christmas was on the 25th with a traditional fancy lunch and gift opening afterward, for my dad it was Christmas Eve dinner and then present opening, and the meal was hearty but not over the top fancy. Since both my sets of grand parents lived in a small town away from Geneva, Cjristmas ended up being about just me and my parents on the 23rd with a fancy dinner, then head to my paternal Grand parents for Christmas Eve and have a hearty dinner, then sleepover, and head downtown the next morning so we could have the Christmas lunch on the 25th at my maternal grandparents. All in all it meant family times, food and cheers for 3 days :-)

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  4. Beautiful! I can not even imagine spending Christmas in a different country it was hard enough away from family. For me christmas is beautiful because everyone is in that mood. Shopping, deocrations, food, cards. All around you. Is there many in India that celibrate christmas? What touched me most was the questions it all brings to the forfront. Questions of identity and future! In the past we have talked of moving to India and those are the same questions I have asked myself and when we made our choice. Beautiful article!

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    1. Thank you.
      When I arrived in 2003 Christmas wasn't overly celebrated, shops were selling that fruit cake thing that is popular in India thanks to the British colonial time I suppose, some shops were doing ugly tiny trees and styrofoam decor in neon colours but that was it, Christians wet to church, others didn't do much, over the year it changed, and it now is this big secular event, and you find more and more fairs, markets, concerts, and festivals around that time of the year and most small shops now sell good looking Christmas trees and ornaments, I have Hindu friends that went for it because it is a fun festival for the kids, and most schools do have a Christmas party with Santa, tree and snacks.

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    2. Anonymous9:34 AM

      Christmas is also known as "Bada Din" (Long Day) in India. 23rd December is the shortest day and from 23rd the days get longer, that is why the 25th is also knows "Bada Din" among those who do not known what the festival is called.

      Christmas was not overly celebrated by Hindus but its importance was always there. I hope we can continue with this secular character of our country, when there are such acts of cruelty perpetrated in the name of religion these days.

      Apple

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  5. Anonymous9:35 AM

    22nd December is the shortest day and from 23rd the days become longer. Typographical error.

    Apple

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  6. Apple,
    This is exactly what it was in Europe, Christians just grafted their holiday over the solstice. Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire in an attempt to save the Empire's proverbial skin, and the religion was slowly imposed as the only official one, but the solstice rites and days of celebration were so deep rooted that the only logical thing to do would have been to make Jesus the bringer of good news and light and place his birth on the 25th. The Winter Solstice is on the 21st of December, the days get longer after that. The only reason Europe is now predominantly Christian was because of a political stunt from the Romans who created a bit too much of a site in their Far East provinces when they crucified Jesus, who was an Jew with radical new ideas that were a threat to the Empire.

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    1. Anonymous10:29 AM

      I am often perturbed by Jesus's violent death. As you said that his radical ideas were a threat to Romans. I wondered what if he lived, traveled far and wide, and spread his message of love??

      The reason it came to my mind because India is home to quiet a few religions which were radical ideas in those days. These faced stiff resistance from the established religious orders but managed to carve their place. Yes, the followers of different religions have always killed each other, but there was always more respect/acceptability for the prophets and there are quiet a few of them.

      Apple




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  7. The shortest day of the year varies from year to year and is between the 20th and the 23rd, this year the solstice falls on the 21st : http://www.dogonews.com/2014/12/18/december-21st-is-winter-or-summer-solstice

    The date at which Winter starts officially in countries that have 4 distinct seasons is December 21st.

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  8. Anonymous12:21 PM

    The other day I saw this recipe in The Hindu for the bûche de Noël. My past attempts at making the sponge roll had been a disaster. Somehow all the recipes on the net for sponge rolls never really give instructions how careful we should be while folding the roll or what ingredient exactly keeps the roll firm to prevent it from breaking while rolling it.
    I wanted to make a chocolate sponge filled with whipped cream for ages. In case you attempt to make it in future please post the recipe.

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    1. I wont be doing a buche de noel, I suck at icing, and I dont even have the right pan to make a thin sponge. But the trick is less in the ingredients than it is in how you roll it. My grand ma used to place her sponge on a wet towel before rolling it to prevent cracking.

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