My Christmas meaning

1:45 PM

painted glass jars as Christmas decor

Festivals from around the world are as deeply rooted in ones culture as they are in religion, if not more. If you just look at Christmas, you won't find two nations with the same sets of traditions, stories, beliefs, and food. Often, each families have their very own interpretation of cultural traditions that shall be passed down generation and shall not be altered in anyway.

I myself have become even more aware of that fact since moving to India, and heaven knows I did struggle to get it to feel familiar. This is in time of festivities that expats of any cultural background is bound to feel homesick. Give me one expat that hasn't struggled even a little with homesickness during holidays, and I'll show you a liar. This is how it is.
I have had a lot of people ask me if I go to Church on Christmas Eve since I moved to India. They usually are a bit puzzled by my resonant "No" to that question. Because it seems that one has to be Christian to celebrate Christmas, yet I don't consider myself so. I was born in a Christian family, in a Christian culture country, but I am not a believer. Nobody in my family really ever was to be fair.

You see, in most of Europe, traditions such as the Christmas tree, Santa, the Yule log, and lighting of candles are far far older than Christianity, all these were elements of the pagan Winter solstice festival. Our age old mythology just got merged with Christian tales over time to form what is known as Christmas today. This the reason why the holiday is so strongly associated with snow, pine trees and flying reindeers when in fact Jesus was a Middle Eastern guy who grew up in a part of the world that had more sand than greenery, and not even the shadow of a snowman. But to convert Europeans, one had to relate to them.

Yes, many European, myself included do celebrate the holiday in a very secular way. In my family, it has always been a time to celebrate our loved ones, and bond in what is otherwise a cold, gloomy and dark month...the darkest of the year. In Switzerland it is dark from around 5pm until 8am the next morning, and you get lucky if you see the sun at all behind the thick nearly constant cover of cloud. Northern Europe has even less daylight, with areas closer to the North Pole barely seeing any light at all. This kind of environment shapes people, and their culture, this is how deep rooted it can get, no matter what you call it.
When I arrived to India, the difference between the Summer solstice and the Winter one suddenly seemed to have vanished altogether. The climate was different, the seasons too, it was hard to figure out how to make Christmas work in that setting.

But I made it work, simply because I want my daughter to know that half of her heritage lies in a country that sees harsh Winters and dark nights, that half of her is part of a different set of stories, traditions, and culture. A place were we believe in finding beauty in an evergreen tree when all the others seemed to have died. A place where kids are told about a magical entity that will give them goodies in what would otherwise be the darkest time of the year, a symbol that there is good in every situation. But more than everything, that there is more than ONE story on the theme of light vs darkness. That there is more than one way to celebrate family, that there is more than one culture in this world. We celebrate light, family and prosperity with Diwali first, then two month later, we celebrate, light, joy, family and Winter with Christmas.

This is how most interfaith and intercultural families roll. In the "masala" community I belong to, we all have no problem mixing two cultures, and creating a fusion the rest of the year. BUT when it comes to holidays...ANY holidays celebrated by one or both parties, we stick to the classics and do not deviate from the traditions.
For me, like many other masala couples, that means there is absolutelty NO Indian elements in my Christmas menu and munchies. Likewise there is absolutely NO continental anything on the menu for Diwali, or any Western traditions for that matter. My friend Tina explained it quite well on her blog.
This might seem very odd to anybody not being in an intercultural relationship, but this is the kind of very essential balance we need to find.

For many of us, we have absolutely no ambitions whatsoever to shed our own culture, or ask our partner to do the same. I myself always will be from Switzerland, and my husband will always be from India, regardless of what passport we could possibly hold in our future, or where we could possibly live. He has absolutely no desire to shed his Indian culture, I have no desire to snip my own roots. And when it comes to the few festivals we observe, DH is the master of ceremony for Diwali, and I am the master of ceremony for Christmas.

So to paraphrase my friend again, there will be no Paneer at my Christmas table, or dal, or chapati, or masala anything. Christmas came to mean the celebration of my roots on top of celebrating the season and my loved ones.

Read more stories from ladies in intercultural relationship regarding Chrismas: 

My Masala Life: We do not eat Paneer on Christmas or Turkey on Diwali: Things we do not Mix
American Punjaban PI: Christmas in My Intercultural Family

Attached moms: My Christmas in India: Blended American traditions, found

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  1. Anonymous3:28 PM

    I think you had a peculiar problem recreating Christmas in India because you lived in South India where winters are non existent. Winters in north india are more like winters of Europe, not much harsh but I guess the fog makes up for lack of snow. We do get the Christmas/new year feeling in north india.

    In fact, Christianity was established in India when many countries of Europe had not adopted Christianity. What many Indians do not know that there are many sects in Christianity like Hinduism. What also comes as a shock many western countries have quiet orthodox Christians also.

    Like Christmas, Haaj the pilgrimage of the muslims was also a pagan festival in pre-islamic arabia. Later, these practices were adopted by muslims. The Holy Koran and Bible share the same stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham etc. The stories seem to converge and then branch out.

    In India, too Aryans brought gods like Indra, Vishnu etc., with them and later on adopted the gods of the Harappans civilization like Shiva and Shakti because images of shiva, shakti and bull was found on the seals excavated from Harappan sites. Thus, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was formed in Hinduism. As Hinduism spread throughout India, it started incorporating elements from indigenous and tribal cultures. Religions emerge out of accumulated wisdom of several centuries.


    1. No the Christian sects have been there since the reform in Europe, a slow and steady movement of Roman Catholic priest and monks starting to question the Church and its fundamental departure from the early scriptures. This reform started in Central Europe during the Middle Age, Southern Europe remains essentially Catholic, but most of Northern Europe jumped off the Catholic wagon creating many sects, which are today regrouped under the umbrella term of Christian Protestants, but englobes Anglicans, Lutheran, Evangelists, Methodists, Calvinists, and probably some other currents I am far less
      familiar with. Christianity was imposed accross Europe as an imperial decree when Rome became a Christian empire, and to make sure people would follow the new religion, big Christian events were grafted on pagan festivals, the Birth of Christ was said to be around the time of the solstice, and to make it even easier, was told to be the bringer of light. It has even been said that the red ornaments sim olives his blood. Easter which is the death of Cjrist for a greater cause and allowing mankind to grow from its mistake and be anew fell around the Spring equinox, and is still associated with strong symbols of fertility such as eggs which were pagan symbols for the rebirth of nature. It was a necessity to convert the masses quickly to a new religion.

      Christmas still goes by names that still strongly indicate solstice ties in many languages in Northern Europe rather than Nativity invoking ones like in Latin roots countries where Rome probably had a stronger hold and influenced the culture to a greater extent.

      To many people in Europe remains a Christmas festival above all, and there are more and more people departing from religion and eager to rediscover their pagan roots, again more in Central and Northern Europe than in the Southern areas. Christianity came to be after nothing but a political coup coming from Rome in an attempt to mend an Empire that was on the verge of falling already.

  2. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Apple i do not know where you get your facts from and I honestly couldn't care less but when you talk about other religion than your own please get your facts right and do your own research. You can hurt a lot of sentiments by your assumptions and stories because ppl having been fighting in the name of religion since ages.
    Haj is a mandatory pilgrimage for the Muslims who can afford to do it and was not a mere pagan festival. Yes it did get corrupted over the years and ppl started to make it more of a yearly carnival and social event but it has been restored back to it's original purpose from the time of prophet Abraham. And it continues to this day as well. Yes the Holy Quran have all the stories of Adam and Eve Moses, David, Jonah, Jesus and a lot more. That is because it is written in the Holy Quran that they are prophets of God and that is what Muslims believe.
    Christians worship Jesus, Jews worship Moses. Muslims worship one and only God and address their lord as "Allah" which is derived from the Arabic word ilah. That is the difference.

    1. Anonymous7:13 PM

      Sorry i was a little fast to type but Jews too worship only one god but they consider Moses to be the greatest prophet of all times.

    2. Exactly, Islam and Judaism both originated from the Middle East and have many of the same stories. Christianism is a departure from Judaism, many of the stories from the Old Testament exist in the Torah and the Quran, Jesus was after all a Jew with radical new ideas that scared the Romans who feared an uprising in the Eastern regions. Christianity was later adopted by Rome in a vain attempt to prevent the Empire for shattering and was imposed accross Europe, the Bible became a carefully chosen set of scriptures to get a specific idea to the masses and impose itself over pagan rites. Catholics do worship Jesus, Lutherans and other Protestant sects do believe more in the one God ideal that was in the original texts and did away with the Saints which are often considered semi-deities with healing powers in Latin countries.

    3. Anonymous9:11 PM

      I did not want to hurt anybody feelings. I am sorry if I have done it. I merely suggested that there was lot of give and take between religions and they were not as isolated as they are made to be. That explains how the story of "noha ark" appears in vishnu puran in a slightly altered form as "matsya avatar" (fish in carnation). In both the stories the flood, boat, pairs of animals remain the same even the duration of the flood for seven days remain the same. If u remove the fish from the story it reads exactly the same as the ark story. All religions are different and I respect it but sometimes I'd u find something similar we should appreciate it. It brings us closer to each other.


    4. Anonymous10:39 PM

      Apple, Nope u haven't hurt anybody's sentiments at all. Here at least. But you do the same thing elsewhere in public forums you might get yourself into trouble. Especially regarding religion.

      Cyn, I really like this post. I just wish the in laws too would accept my culture too!
      It would be so easy. Traditions must be preserved as long as the Etiquette and Manners are not compromised. Also i feel they shouldnt be sexist. You won't believe it but there are various patriarchal traditions in India which almost no urban women are following.

    5. I heard of some of these patriarchal traditions, and yes they should stop. No tradition that makes feel half of the population feel small and incomplete without the other half has any place in any religion.

    6. Anonymous1:36 PM

      I would like to say that in India there is spectrum, from mild patriarchy to extreme patriarchy. This depends from community to community. These communities were less aggressive and cultural traits were more dominant and exposure to education came early during British rule. Women were traditionally some what more dominant. This along with education and culture empowered women. These communities already exhibited matriarchal traits. The family hierarchy remains the same but how the internal dynamics work according to culture is different. Man women relationship also play out differently. There was always more leg room for improvement and accommodating new ideas. We all appear to the same from outside but there significant differences which even Indians are not aware off due to limited exposure to different cultures.

      About patriarchal traditions, Karva Chauth is most famous and celebrated. Not all communities practice Karva Chauth in India but it has been projected through movies and serials and seem to hold public imagination. There are lesser know traditions like Sabitri Bratha in Orissa, same concept of fast but different rituals. Nowdays, I have heard that even unmarried women observe Karva Chauth fast and men are also keeping fast on that day. To each his own. I also read an article how brothers are under financial pressure to give some expensive gift to their sisters on Rakhi. Anything which celebrates relationships whether husband-wife of brother-sister in whichever way, is always welcome.

      Inside India, things have seldom been the same from community to community and with changing times, things have changed considerably. But the image of India remains the more or less the same. The media too has not kept itself abreast of these changes. There are no positive image of women in the serials. Basically, borrowing elements from old bollywood movies. Even if there are some positive traits they just don't come to the surface since the story meanders endlessly. This changing India must get reflected somewhere beyond the phony modernity that we so love to flaunt.


    7. Anonymous10:15 PM

      so according to anonymous hinduism is patriarchal and islam is most feminist religion,surely saudi arabia proves that beautifully.

  3. Cynthia that was beautiful. Like really really beautiful. You completly summed up the entire christmas feeling of hope and beauty. The evergreen tree representing the ability for something to keep living in a cold winter. These are such beautiful traditions you are passing to you daughter and sharing with your husband. Keeping this tradition intact is very important for the meaning to be fully understood . I really loved reading this post.

    1. Thank you,
      Traditions are important to keep alive. As I said in the comment just above, we human are great story tellers, all of our diverse culture rely on the sharing of stories and traditions through the age, this is a very beautiful thing.

  4. Anonymous10:43 PM

    Excellent post! Holidays are personal and their meaning Is really what you want to make of t. I like the idea of keeping Xmas and Diwali pure without influence from other culture. I don't celebrate Christmas in a religious way either. There is so much more to it! Susan

    1. There is really a lot more to Christmas than the religious aspect indeed. I don't think I ever did celebrated Christmas in a religious way. When I was young and my parents send me to the Religious instruction classes, which are suggested and not part of the curriculum in school, I did attend a special Christmas advent service, kids that took the class were part of it, but we only all went because it was in our county, and we met all our neighbours, and it was really the snack time afterward that everybody looked forward to. Once I became older and no longer was part of the service, we stopped going, most of my friends and their parents did the same. Then at age 17 I made the choice not to confirm my parent's baptism and no longer call myself Christian, I did not believe in any of what I learned in these classes enough to make that choice, and out of respect for those who believe in the bible I won't call myself so.

    2. Anonymous10:59 AM

      Kabir Das the great saint poet of India, summed it up beautifully:

      "No one becomes learned by reading big fat books, he who has learnt to how to spell the word "love" is the real learned one"

      He also said:

      "The lane of Divine Love is too narrow, two can not pass through it at the same time. When I was, God couldn't be found anywhere, and when God appeared this ephemeral existence of mine simply vanished"

      With these two verses he put to rest all arguments about god.
      One can argue on books and their interpretations but the bottom line is love and respect.



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