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When your holiday traditions aren't so "traditional"

Dec. 25, 2017
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As the fall and winter months roll around, I always become more aware (and appreciative) of the different ways people celebrate holidays. Before leaving campus to go home for Thanksgiving break, some of my friends raved about how much they look forward to their moms’ turkey and stuffing. Others drooled at the thought of homemade dumplings and noodle-based dishes. 

For me, Thanksgiving means dal baati, a North Indian dish centered around lentils and bread. My family is primarily South Indian, but every year we eat dal baati for lunch with our North Indian family friends in San Francisco. After inhaling plate after plate of food, we often hike up around Twin Peaks, feeling the sharp winds and admiring the city skyline. 

When I was younger, I would always wonder why we didn’t eat “traditional” Thanksgiving food. I understood the no-turkey part since we and the majority of our family friends are vegetarian, but I was always curious about what it was like to have mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce instead of Indian food. I remember avoiding discussion about Thanksgiving dinners as a child since many of my friends wouldn’t know what kind of food I was talking about (also, we always do lunch—not dinner). 

Looking back, I realize that I used to sidestep pretty much all conversations that would bring up traditions or anything to do with my culture in general. I’ve played Carnatic (Indian classical) violin for as long as I can remember, and I used to avoid talking about it. I thought it was “too Indian,” that no one around me would understand or even take it seriously, for that matter. I was even self-conscious about wearing Indian clothes in public, often bringing big sweatshirts with me to try to cover up my kurthis if we went out. 

But my eyes have finally opened up in the past few years, and I now wear my kurthis with pride. I practice my Carnatic music freely at school, and sometimes I take on-the-spot pop song requests from my floormates (the other day, I tried my hand at figuring out Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”). I’m learning how to embrace my simultaneous Indian-ness and American-ness, and I know that being one makes me no less the other.

The subtle differences in tradition carry through to winter holidays, too. We usually put up a tree and decorate our house with lights, and sometimes we invite friends and family to cook and bake together. I have friends whose families have more deep-set traditions, like exchanging handmade ornaments or playing games centered around a particular advent calendar, but I also have friends who told me that their families go on road trips or just get together to eat food and enjoy the company.

Since a lot of major Indian holidays like Dusshera and Diwali are in early fall months and therefore don’t result in time off from school or work, I feel like a lot of sentiments from those celebrations carry over into the winter for us. The season typically also brings a lot of music, and I almost always end up playing my violin at some point during family and friend gatherings. Others will also join with their own small performances, whether they be a different instrument, singing, or even dance. Though the original reasons for the academic breaks are different, I associate fall and winter with the same feelings: amity, laughter, and warmth. 

I’ve ultimately come to realize that the people around me are much more open to cultural differences than I thought and that I shouldn’t feel self-conscious about the traditions with which I grew up; I think it’s beautiful that people celebrate the same values of gratitude and togetherness in different ways. I will forever be thankful for our yearly dal baati, our evenings spent stringing up bulbs and lighting candles, and the music that fills our houses to its farthest corners on those cold winter nights.