I don’t have a lot of clear memories of my first Christmas day in India, but I do know I went to a circus.
I was in India to visit my long-distance boyfriend, JP. It was my first trip there and I wanted to get a feel for the country and get to know JP’s family better. As I later realized, JP was also observing what his country, and his family, thought of me. The fact that the visit fell across the holiday season added to the intensity of both the travel and learning experiences. A vast number of people travel during the Christmas holiday, but most people are going home to their families. I, instead, had left my home and was immersing myself in a whole petri dish of new people, situations, and experiences. It was Christmas a whole new way.
I do not have a specific memory of attending church that first Christmas, though we most certainly did—JP’s Indian Christian family always goes to church on Christmas morning. I do remember, prior to Christmas Day, being special guests at a slum church to watch their Christmas program. I share this because at the end of the program it was standard for Santa to make an appearance and hand out gifts, but unfortunately one of the slum dogs became angry and bit Santa on the backside. I suppose that’s what you get when you bring Santa into church, and the outlandishness of this experience has probably overruled my Christmas church memories. I do remember that JP and I met up with two young women who were spending a year in India working with a mission organization. We met at a trendy, American-style coffee shop and drank the requisite lattes and shared cold Indian samosas. When the young women learned of our plans to attend the circus, they decided to join us.
There’s not much to tell about the circus. It was pretty much like all teeny-tiny circuses in the US, with its fascinatingly skilled elephant, some sloppy clowns, and a small troupe of acrobats flying through the air. The more surprising thing, and hence the more memorable part of our circus outing, was a terribly sticky traffic jam on the way home that night. Purportedly, it was because of the many, many Bangaloreans who were out celebrating Christmas. I was shocked, and not because of the loud and tangled mass of traffic; which is very common. Rather, I was shocked to learn that all those people were celebrating a Christian holiday in a strikingly non-Christian locale. The percentage of Christians in India, even in Westernized Bangalore, is minute.
That was 2003, but even then it was clear that cosmopolitan Bangalore had her eyes turned west. Bangalore was watching and mimicking what she could when it came to Christmas. Leading up to the holiday, shop fronts displayed whole forests of fake pine trees loaded with mounds of lumpy, white cotton, in an attempt to make them look snowy. Yet without Jack Frost nipping at my nose, and iced sugar cookies piled high on plates, and the barrage of Christmas tunes piped though every radio station and store, and without my mom’s homemade Christmas coffeecake, the cotton-draped trees had done little to make it feel like Christmas. India was even more foreign than I anticipated, with the lack of familiar Christmas traditions and feels snowing down from the skies and bursting the seams of life like Christmastime does in the US.
Which is why it surprised me to be gridlocked in traffic from Christmas merry-making. I’ve since learned how much the people of India love a good party, regardless of the religious associations. On December 25, 2003, the people of Bangalore were out and about, enjoying parties and giving gifts.
On December 4, 2004, JP became my husband, and the next day we flew to India for more celebrations. (Again, Indians like parties.) My memory of the month of December, 2004, is a fantastical blur of jetlag, wedding reception preparations, wedding reception hoopla, a raucous-y combination of allergies, “something I ate,” and exhaustion, all followed by honeymoon travel. Like the previous year, I have limited memories of Christmas Day. I don’t remember a church service, though I’m sure we attended one. I don’t remember what we ate, or who we saw. What I remember most is that it was no easier for me to figure out when and how to hand out my special Christmas gifts than it had been the year before. I love to celebrate Christmas by selecting and giving gifts. (In my book the people of Bangalore got that right in their copycatting of Christmas.) On both of my first Christmas mornings in India, after a confused and disgruntled conversation, JP led me into the kitchen while mom was cooking breakfast so we could both offer our Christmas greetings and, in my case, a toppling stack of luggage-smushed gifts. There would be no easy way to open the gifts then, and no clear space to set them down. I came to see that my lovingly collected, wrapped, and carted gifts had become a cumbersome challenge as I tried to insert my tradition into theirs.
JP’s family did not share my American penchant for Christmas gift-giving. Nor did they have a long-standing tradition of lingering around the Christmas tree for hours, talking, unwrapping presents, laughing, snacking, and enjoying the wafting smell of Christmas dinner roasting in the oven. Like the vast majority of Indians, they did not have a Christmas tree. They avoided lavishly piling up too many gifts, lest that become what the celebration is about. Christmas biriyani, which has become one of my very favorite Indian dishes, is prepared and set aside for lunch at the same time that breakfast is made. There is no wafting, apart from the usual flurry of spicy scents in the morning air. It was all a shock to my orderly and beloved sense of Christmas tradition, and for years I bumbled it in India.
On these first Christmas days in India, I struggled with a quiet sense of disappointment. I could only manage a brief video call to my family in Michigan, during which they seemed distracted, and we suffered a poor internet connection. I wanted to give my new family and friends those Christmas gifts that I had brought, but couldn’t seem to do that in a way that made sense or felt right. It was not until recently that I realized how all of my disappointment and frustration came from not being able to celebrate the holiday in ways that felt familiar, consistent, or comfortable. As we tell the story of our first Christmas in India, JP and I always jokingly say, “Who goes to a circus on Christmas?,” but my laughter covers my disappointment over the lack of a holiday that felt familiar. I think I laugh to keep from crying.
Most people who find themselves in a foreign land on Christmas (be it another country or your in-laws’ house) will admit to a discomfiting sense of disorientation. Even well-conditioned world travelers prefer to be home for Christmas. It is clunky at best to enter another culture when all we want is the comfort and happiness generated by our familiar food, family, and practices. Newly married folks experience challenges as each partner shifts from their own family’s time-honored traditions to those of their in-laws’. It is one thing to negotiate the idiosyncrasies of communication with one’s own relatives during the holidays, but it is a whole allemande left to deal with another family’s idiosyncrasies. Everything is different, some things seem backwards, and by the end you feel so upside down with homesickness you may even long for the awkward familiarity of Uncle Al’s brazen and off-base dinner table banter.
Not being able to share in your usual traditions generates loss. I had never fully enjoyed my mother’s Cherry Walnut Christmas Coffeecake until I was a young adult. (It was jam-packed with walnuts; which I didn’t care for.) Eventually, I began to enjoy a buttery slice of it with a good cup of coffee around our Christmas breakfast table, but it wasn’t until I was in India, without my mom’s coffeecake, that I truly hankered for it, and hurt from the absence of what had become a tradition.
During the holidays, we want to be near to our own, where we are best seen and best known. We want to be in the place where we all hold the same secrets and hold the same hopes. Joining another family, even the most loving and generous, around their table in another country and culture, feels good, but it can also be raw. I saw this time and again while working with international students. They longed for their families at Christmastime, even as they were thrilled by the experience of invitations into the homes and traditions of the loving people of West Michigan. Yet I believe it is preferable to bumble through some new traditions than find yourself alone at Christmas. It’s possible to hold the loss of personal tradition close, while basking in the kindness of great measure around a foreign table, or while seated at the circus, or caroling new tunes, and so on. When the world celebrates Christmas, it is best to go along for the ride.
It is nearing twenty years since I first went to India at Christmastime. I have spent a fair number of Christmas Days in India since then, quite a few of those with my own little family of four. We, of course, are still in the stage of growing our own traditions, so I suppose we can call it a grand luxury to be able to do this consistently in two cultures. Some years we decorate our Christmas tree in Michigan with a menagerie of time-tested, homemade, and reverently collected ornaments. Some years we do not get to decorate a tree, but instead stroll through the botanical garden in Bangalore and ogle the banyans. Some years we pose for a post-Christmas Eve photo in front of First Reformed Church’s elegant Advent wreath. And some years we dress in saris and kurtas and dash off to church on Christmas morning. We might eat a ham dinner. We might get mutton biriyani. We might drive off the day after Christmas to visit my brother’s family in Ann Arbor, or we might, in true Indian fashion, ride as a family of four on a scooter to the American-style coffee shop for a donut and coconut-flavored iced coffee.
We’ve stumbled through the formation of our Christmas traditions both in India and in Michigan. We’ve bumbled it in both places at different times, but we’ve also shared good traditions in both places. My son insists on burning incense when we light our Advent candles in Michigan. And one of my proudest adult moments was when JP’s grandfather asked for seconds of the Cherry Walnut Christmas Coffeecake that I painstakingly baked in India. What it all comes down to is that we are learning in our hearts how our two-culture family celebrates the birth of Jesus with reverence and gladness. In one country or the other, we do this with our extended families, and when something rises up as loss, something else bubbles up as joy. In so many ways, Christmas is about gathering and sharing in the story of God incarnate. Certainly we can’t expect this to be all clear and easy. Rather, we do it year after year, with those around us, wherever we are, praising God for coming to us, living with us, and saving us all.