Growing up in India, Christmas was not a big occasion for celebration during my childhood. All it meant to me was some very yummy home-made cake brought by a Christian friend in school. And I vaguely remember my parents leaving some surprise presents by my bedside on Christmas morning for a couple of years, but I must have been very young then since I don’t remember any more details.
But this year is another story altogether. This is my first Christmas experience in the US. For the past two years, it so happened that I was here for the rest of the year but somehow managed to be in India just around December. But this time I’m here and having a lot of fun making up for the past two holiday seasons.
We bought a Christmas tree last weekend. A fake one, since we had heard the real ones are too messy and I don’t feel too good about cutting down trees anyhow. Our tree is a six and a half feet high Colorado pine and very pretty. It came predecorated with tiny shimmering lights but surely I can’t be expected to be happy with just lights however nice they might be! So I had a grand time picking the rest of the decorations. There’s a red and gold streamer, some red, blue, gold and green balls, little silver stars, a Santa Claus, a Snowman, an Angel and a beautiful red bow right on top of the tree.
Doesn’t it sound just lovely? And it feels so nice and warm and cozy when we switch on the lights in the evening! We aren’t done with the decorations yet though. There’s a lovely Christmas wreath with a smiling Santa and cherry ‘Welcome’ sign that needs to go on the door and some colorful lights that we’ll be putting up on our balcony railing. The problem is, we can’t find an electric connection anywhere in the balcony. I’m sure there must be one since all our neighbors seem to have found it, but we haven’t been successful yet. Anyone living in apartments in the US have any pointers on that?
I have also been reading up on a lot of the Christmas-related stuff on the net this week. When we bought the tree, I was naturally curious. Why are we buying one? What is it’s significance? Why the star and red bow on top? And many more such questions kept popping up in my mind. So I googled it up and found a lot of interesting stuff in the process. Did you know, for example, that the legend of Santa Claus originated from a generous Bishop called Saint Nicholas from Turkey? And I always thought Turkey was an Islamic country! Or that the tradition of a Christmas tree was believed to be of pagan origin and was therefore opposed by early Christians? Interesting, isn’t it? I am not sure how much of this is true though, does anyone know?
Then there’s a holiday luncheon in our office next Monday and a group of people are planning to sing Christmas carols during the luncheon. The leader of the group is in my team, and he had heard from someone that I’ve learned Indian classical music, so he asked me if I’d like to join in. Sounds like a great idea, I said, except that I don’t know any Christmas carols! No problem, we’ll teach you, he assured me. So our group had it’s first practice session this morning. I found the style of singing very different (The girls are expected to sing in a very soft and high-pitched ‘soprano’ voice.), so it took me some time to pick it up and blend in, but after that it was great fun all the way!
Everybody was amazed to see me volunteer. An Indian girl who has never heard a Christmas carol before volunteering to sing one! I felt like an exotic specimen for the first few minutes the way everyone kept staring at me but luckily there were no major goof ups. I had listened to all the carols several times last night, so I was able to pick up the livelier tunes like ‘Deck the Hall’ and ‘Let it Snow’ but some of the slower ones like ‘Silent Night’ completely escaped me. I was given this feedback after the session – You blended in beautifully, so either you sing very well or you didn’t sing at all! And when I told them I was finding it hard to pick some of the slower tunes, I was told to lip-sync whenever in doubt!
Some folks also wanted to know if I didn’t have a problem singing some of the religious carols since I am not a Christian. They seemed to find it surprising that I didn’t have any issues with that. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because Hinduism, at least the way most of us practice it, is such a loosely-defined and suit-yourself kind of religion – we worship so many Gods and Goddesses – that it’s not hard for us to bow to Jesus or Mother Mary as well. I have a habit of folding my hands in a namaskar whenever I pass any place of worship, be it a temple, a church or a mosque. But I wasn’t sure how kindly my Christian colleagues (who probably believe strongly in monotheism) would look upon this philosophy of mine, so I simply said I’ve no problems and left it at that.
What I did have a problem with and refused to participate in is a ‘Secret Santa Exchange’ being planned, again, in our office. The idea is each person who signs up for the exchange sends in a wish list of Christmas gifts for himself/herself, then a single person swaps the lists and assigns each list to somebody else who signed up for the exchange. So finally everyone gets his/her wishlist fulfilled but also ends up spending a lot of money on coming up with somebody else’s wishlist gifts.
Now I don’t get the point of that at all. I have nothing against gifting friends and family, but I believe in surprises and spontaneous and heartfelt gifts and am not a big fan of advertising my wishlists! Then again, I’m extra careful buying stuff in this country – I’ve improved a lot since my first few dollar-counting and rupee-converting months here, but there’s a long way to go yet! So if I am going to spend money here, I prefer to pick and choose carefully myself.
I had brought some lovely Rajasthani wall-hangings for my team from my India trip last month and needless to say they loved it. (Some have taken them home, but most have put them up as banners in their cubicles. Our team’s area looks like all bright and colorful these days – a stranger might be forgiven for assuming it’s an Indian company we work in!) Americans love Indian textiles and handicrafts but more importantly I’m sure they appreciated the thought behind the gift – that I had thought of them when I was back home and cared enough to get something special for them. Now that’s the kind of gift I believe in!
There was another different kind of Secret Santa program in office last week wherein we contributed money to buy Christmas presents for children in a local shelter that our office sponsors and I contributed wholeheartedly for that. Again, that’s another kind of gift that I truly believe in.
All in all, I’m having a busy and fun time this month. Winter is such a dreary time in New England (Imagine going home from office at 5 PM in pitch-darkness!) that I’m not surprised folks take so much effort and pleasure in filling up the holiday season with as many fun activities as possible. There’s also a Christmas party at a Sri Lankan Christian friend’s home this weekend, a Holiday Dessert baking contest in the office next week (Any pointers for that?) and a Florida vacation coming up during the actual Holiday weekend! I think I know what I’ve been missing for the past two years now!