The Christmas carols play in the background while my 9-year-old daughter and I decorate the tree. It’s propped up in a corner of our living room, the green limbs stretching their reach while the mini-lights create constellations on the branches. As a sweet treat, I’ve made hot chocolate with marshmallows. My iPhone is tuned into the Christmas station and we sing Jingle Bells, while holding hands and shimmying across the floor.
In the midst of our revelry, I glance at the opposite corner of the room and spot the silver and copper mini-temple that greets my family every morning. It serves as a cultural lighthouse and a reminder of our roots. A few weeks earlier we celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. I cooked a traditional feast, my daughter made a rangoli, an Indian folk art where patterns are made on the floor using colored sand and we lowered our heads and prayed. “Happy Diwali” we exclaimed, calling family and friends to share in our joy. To complete the festive experience we lit sparklers on our patio and watched the glittering display until the sparks bowed to the ground.
Why do we celebrate both the Hindu holiday of Diwali and the Christian holiday of Christmas, which land on the calendar nearly at the same time? The proximity of the two holidays cushions three important lessons I am attempting to teach my daughter: tolerance, assimilation and connection. In creating family traditions, I hope to open up discussions about Christianity and Hinduism, as well as other religions, like Judaism and Buddhism. I want to show my daughter that in a climate where chaos and conflicts permeates the world in the name of religion, there is also an alternative – honoring other people’s choices and how they think about God. By educating her about different ideologies, I believe she will be more open to embracing all people, all nationalities and all religions.
I am not seeking this path for her in a vacuum.
Nearly 30 years ago, my immigrant parents took this same leap with my sister and me to help us grapple with straddling two different identities and cultures as we assimilated into growing up in the United States. I remember my father would order fruitcake from a local Texas bakery and schedule it to arrive close to Christmas morning. As dawn broke on that day, while the Hindu deity, Ganesh, eyed the Christmas tree from across the room, our family sipped on chai and we ate cake. To add to the dichotomy in the background, the radio played Bollywood songs. After breakfast, my sister and I opened presents, while my parents thumbed through the cards they received in the mail. I remember my father laughing at the tie we picked out for him and the glee my mother experienced as she tried cooking with her new blender.
Like Diwali, Christmas for us was a different kind of festival of lights. At night, we drove around the neighborhood admiring the lights that transformed ordinary streets into places of magic. Huddled tight in the warmth of our car, I remember my mother kissing me on my cheek and watching my younger sister awed by every flicker, like spotting fireflies on a summer day.
Some people who have preconceived notions about my cultural roots are surprised when I confess we have a Christmas tree that occupies space in our living room and yes, we also bake and lay out cookies for Santa. Year after year, we send out Christmas cards celebrating the joy of the season and attend holiday parties. As my parents taught me, I want my daughter to understand that identifying with one religion doesn’t mean she can’t embrace the traditions of another faith. To that end, in years past, I’ve taken her to homeless shelters during the holiday season so she recognizes not everyone is fortunate to have warm food and presents on Christmas. These are encounters she wouldn’t necessarily experience if we shielded her based on our fears that she might feel confused about Hinduism.
Although my childhood memories are firmly etched in my mind, I cannot guarantee what my daughter will remember about how we celebrate the holiday season. In these tender years it is unclear what she grasps. But I am happy we have started a dialogue about other ways of honoring God, and the similarities and differences they may exhibit from our faith. As she grows older, I support her desire to explore all religions, whether it means walking into a church to witness a baptism or learning about the ceremonies of Kwanzaa or the meaning of lighting of the menorah for Hanukkah.
In the meantime, fresh from enjoying our Diwali celebration, my daughter is looking forward with anticipation to the debut of her Elf on the Shelf, singing Christmas carols and snacking on homemade holiday cookies. Through it all: the baking, the singing and anticipating Santa’s appearance, I have one hope for my daughter. That she remembers, as I have, that embracing another perspective never means sacrificing her own.
(This appeared in Washington Post on December 21, 2015. Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer and editor. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri. She is working on a memoir which explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.)