How Indian Americans celebrate Christmas

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Minorities like Indian-Americans and South Asians have striven for decades to be part of the melting pot that is America. But they also crave to be recognized for their differences. No time is more telling than Christmas when this community which is made up of so many faiths, displays a varied but open approach to a festival that only some of them espouse as a religious one.

For Indian Christians, it is a time of deep reflection, and a time to meet fellow devotees hailing from different parts of India, as well as keeping children engaged with the faith as they follow the traditions of their country of origin. Indian churches in America ring out with the Telugu “Shudda Raathri” and Malayalam “Devivam Pirakkunu” or Punjabi “Sada Yesu Aj” and Bengali “Eshe Gelo Sei Subho Din,” rather than English renditions.

A rough estimate of Indian Christian organizations in the New York and New Jersey area alone, showed a list of more than 35 churches in 2015, reflecting India’s diversity, with congregations ranging from as small as under a hundred to those like Syrian Christian ones with several thousand followers (News India Times Dec. 23, 2015).

The Faithful

According to a Pew Research study based on the 2010 U.S. Census, 18 percent of Indian-Americans identified themselves as Christians, 51 percent as Hindus, 10 percent as Muslim, and 1 percent identified as Sikh, though the advocacy group, the Sikh Coalition, says there are more than 500,000 Sikhs in the country.

Indian and South Asian Christians display a rich cultural diversity within the faith. The Church of South India Malayalam Congregation of Greater New York, has a Christmas Carol service planned for Dec. 23, and prayers and gatherings scheduled for its members. It is the largest Church of South India congregation in North America, started in the 1980s, according to its website, and is now located in Seaford, Long Island. The St. Johns Mar Thoma Church in Queens Village has the Holy Communion and Christmas Day service on Dec. 25. This church began in 1990 with just 17 families and has grown to more than 240 families.

Sunny Gill Masih, a Christian from Pakistan who works as a casting director and producer in Philadelphia, PA, told News India Times he is using this Christmas to raise funds for refugees of all faiths stranded in different countries. This Dec. 23, he is organizing “Christmas Night” for which gospel singers from different cities will gather at that fundraising event. He will also attend church on Dec. 25 for the Christmas service which will be conducted in Urdu.

One could hazard a guess from anecdotal evidence, that a majority of Indian- Americans, whether religious or secular, celebrate the joyfulness and the “spirit” of giving, during Christmas. A video circulated by the National Sikh Campaign, shows local Sikh community organizations of Santa Rosa and Turlock, in California, participating in a Christmas event, with Sikh youth manning a free hot chocolate stall and an elderly Sikh man wishing people Merry Christmas urging them to take a glass of milk. All as Christmas songs and carols blare from speakers.

Tolerance

“Obviously, we are Hindu, so we celebrate the various festivals associated with that faith,” Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, told News India Times. “But we do celebrate Christmas and believe in the fellowship, charity and exchanging of gifts,” he said about his family, adding, “And we have a Christmas tree.”

Similar to the Hindu festival of Diwali, Krishnamoorthi and his family exchange gifts, give gifts to the children, “And I’m sure Santa will also have some gifts for the grown-ups under the tree,” he quips.

On a more serious note, Krishnamoorthi says it is “good to be tolerant of other people, their faiths, and not judging.” He points to the annual Diwali festival held on Capitol Hill and at the White House. “We had three dozen members of Congress (at Diwali on Capitol Hill) and not all were Hindu,” he laughs recalling this year’s celebrations. “So it goes both ways.”

Even if Christmas is a personal choice for those of other faiths, the festival has a broader meaning than only the religious, a point made by several people interviewed for this article. “It is about helping fellowman or woman, donating to causes … For example, we make a big donation to our Hindu temple around this time of year,” Krishnamoorthi said. “There’s great diversity obviously amongst Hindus,” conceded Suhag Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy organization Hindu American Foundation. Many celebrate a “Hallmark” version of Christmas, while who would never consider celebrating Christmas. “Then there are those that might create new celebrations or find traditional Hindu holidays that coincide with the season in order to partake in the larger, festive season, but still carve out traditions that reflect their own religious and cultural contexts,” reflecting what Krishnamoorthi said his family does.

For News India Times publisher and Padma Shri recipient Dr. Sudhir Parikh, who has a chain of more than 20 clinics around the tri-state area, Christmas brings him some reprieve. “I look at Christmas as a great holiday rather than a religious festival. It is a time when we are celebrating the year that has gone by and the good fortune to look forward to in the year to come,” he said, adding, “People should celebrate it as a holiday for all.”

Joyfulness

For Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur, writer and researcher of some renown from Silicon Valley, Christmas today is spent listening to all the carols and music on numerous radio stations that he has programmed his car radio to provide him with the press of a button or a voice command. “I can sing along with virtually all of them,” he says, and breaks into Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer. It wasn’t always like that. When his children were little it was the whole works – Christmas tree, presents, carols and all the trappings. Now the children have grown and scattered around the country, and there is no tree in the house. Wadhwa, who considers himself “spiritual but not religious” says his whole life has been spent in Western countries, which is why, “I love Christmas. It’s pretty much my favorite festival, even more than Diwali. For one thing, it lasts longer,” he jokes. When he ran a company, Wadhwa and his wife held Christmas parties for employees, each getting a present, and there were appropriate decorations at the office.

New Jersey resident Shahnaz Sheikh’s father and grandfather were in the Indian and British Armies respectively. Despite her being a Muslim, Christmas was celebrated in her house way before she was born and growing up, she witnessed her mother frying kal-kals and baking fruit cakes, and she herself joined friends to go carol singing in India. As a Manhattanite for 30 years, Sheikh put up a Christmas tree in her apartment, and brought much of that fun of Christmas with her to the U.S. She looks forward to it she says, as much as the Hindu festival of Diwali. “Shopping is also a big part of it. I love getting gifts for others,” she says.

In Silicon Valley, Indian-Americans celebrate with parties, but it is also a personal choice how much they want to engage with the festival, Wadhwa says based on his observations. The India Community Center in Milpitas, California, one of the largest such centers in the area, organized a Christmas Art Workshop Dec. 16. Organizers could not be reached by press time.

A woman decorates the exteriors of her house ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Ahmedabad December 22, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Teachable Moment

“Any holiday is an opportunity to both share the force of good that religion ought to be,” opines Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation. “It’s also an opportunity for us to teach and learn,” the differences and similarities of the world’s faiths, Shukla added.

In New Jersey, Mayor-elect of Hoboken Ravinder Bhalla, has had to combat fake news that he would be cancelling Christmas. He told News India Times that mainstream newspapers called him to find out if the story was true. “Are you joking?” Bhalla retorted. In fact, he officiated during the lighting of the City Hall Christmas tree in Hoboken, and he has addressed several church congregations during their Christmas services in the city over the last few weeks.

Bhalla has two children, a 5 year old son and 10 year old daughter. “We’re of course Sikh, and don’t celebrate Christmas in a religious way,” he said. “But there’s a cultural aspect to it. We definitely celebrate the Christmas spirit.” At his home, there’s been a Christmas tree with ornaments, and a plate of cookies and a glass of milk are left on Christmas Eve for Santa. “Our 5- year old has written to Santa Claus and posted the letter to the North Pole and of course said what a good boy he’s been. And he is keeping his fingers crossed he will getting a nice gift,” Bhalla says. The couple makes sure kids go to sleep early on Christmas Eve and the morning is just so exciting. “It’s a family time of giving and sharing,” says Bhalla.

His views were echoed by another Sikh, Lt. Col. Kamal S. Kalsi, said his family also boasts a Christmas tree and all the trappings. “We also celebrate Diwali, Vaisakhi, and teach our children to celebrate all faiths,” he said, adding, “Whenever you adopt a culture or new things, you enrich your life.”

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