For immigrant families from India, the holidays come closest to the long, riotous wedding seasons in the homeland.
By Priyanka Mattoo
Ms. Mattoo is a writer and filmmaker.
LOS ANGELES — Many years ago, when my brother and I were just out of the house, my parents entered a raffle and won a Christmas tree. It was fake, 12 feet tall and covered in hundreds of Raggedy Ann dolls.
It went up each year in Troy, Mich., until they had given away every last doll to any child who crossed their threshold. After that, it started to look “a little lonely,” according to my mother, and they retired it. It didn’t occur to any of us to decorate it anew. Decorating trees is for people who celebrate Christmas.
My brother and I were raised on the wink-wink end of Hinduism, as evidenced by the three-foot tall brass statue of Ganesha in my parents’ living room. Polished to a sheen, he sits topless but for a curtain of Mardi Gras beads hiding his gleaming belly. On his elephant head, a child’s sombrero. He symbolizes, for me, our family’s ingrained love of anything festive.
In India, if my parents played it right, we could busy ourselves with two wedding seasons: summers in Kashmir and winters in Delhi. That meant five potential months of celebrations apart from the major holidays of Shivratri and Diwali, birthdays and anniversaries — all opportunities to slip into sparkly clothes and eat to burst.
You can understand, then, the appeal of a proper Christmas to the fresh immigrant. In 1981, we moved to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Wandering around in the gray British slush during our first winter, my mother must have second-guessed every move she had made. Professional opportunities abounded in the West, but where was the joy?
Then came December, and its familiar pace: Work parties, school parties, apartment building parties! Sparkly clothing, tables groaning with appetizers. A month of dancing and revelry. The buttoned-up, otherwise impenetrable British, shouting greetings in the streets. My parents walked me down Regent Street in central London in a pram to marvel at the lights.
They cheered me along during my primary school Christmas recital. A somewhat lean Santa, his voice an eerie double of Martin-the-music-teacher-slash-principal, visited our school to hand me a formative copy of “Matilda,” Roald Dahl’s tale of a precocious, naughty girl in a British village. Baffled and delighted by this unexpected peek into my soul, I was hooked.
When we moved to Saudi Arabia in 1985, non-Islamic religious practices were publicly banned in the kingdom. But Eid came twice a year, with its own sparkles and food to scratch our itch. We still flew to India for summer weddings, and started a ritual of winter break in England, recreating the accouterments of our early days there: a Terry’s chocolate orange before walking down Regent Street and marveling at the lights, now with my toddler brother in that pram.
Arriving in New York in the mid 1990s, our Christmas folded in local traditions. My doctor father hosted holiday parties for his hospital staff, a beautiful spread of vol-au-vents, sausage rolls, mixed nuts, and platters of Indian food to round it out. Then he started putting up holiday lights after Thanksgiving, and, finally, came the Raggedy Ann tree.
Our attitude toward Christmas evolved, in America, into an all-out everything but the gifts. For most people, I suppose a gift exchange is the point. We did gifts on birthdays and cash on Hindu holidays. For us, the holidays have always been more about the extended joy, as close to a wedding season as we will get in this country.
As an adult, I still traveled over winter break, first with my best friend, and then the boyfriend who became my husband. Both are Jewish, none of us were expected at home, but part of a winter travel plan was always figuring out where to spend Christmas with someone who celebrated it: A white elephant gift exchange in Rome. Sleeping under an entire Jamon Iberico in Madrid. Sprinkling furikake on wasabi Christmas salmon on a hilltop in Oahu, Hawaii.
The tradition continues with our children, because our neighbors have designated their house as a drop-off point for Santa, who always remembers a gift for each of them.
This year, of course, is a little different. We celebrated Hanukkah as we always do, with family time and the unwrapping of reasonable, enriching gifts. But the next week looms empty, our usual smorgasbord of joyful options cut off.
My friend Camilla’s dining table will not become a gargantuan cheese board. Our darling neighbors won’t gift our son something wildly impractical and noisy that he loves more than all eight presents he gets from us.
Even my father has toned down his rituals. There aren’t any lights outside the house. “It didn’t seem appropriate during a pandemic,” he said. He has wound one rope of lights around the banister inside, and another on the deck, where only he can see them. They bring him joy when he looks out the window before bed.
This season, I will mark the occasion myself. Trader Joe’s makes a chocolate orange. I might confit some duck. We do have some string lights. Maybe we’ll watch “Elf,” have some cocoa and FaceTime some friends. Some friends who actually celebrate Christmas. Because all we do, really, is enjoy it.
Priyanka Mattoo is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.
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