A fully decorated Christmas tree adorns the Princeton, N.J., home of Anil and Rupali Kale. It's where their children hang the various decorations they make in school . In Ray Sharma's home in Toronto, his daughters prepare to write letters to Santa, help the parents decorate a cheerful Christmas tree with a star on top and listen to Christmas carols.
All across North America, Indians celebrate Christmas with gusto, no matter what their religion. Many find a comforting family-spirit in the festival. They try to take what is the best in Christmas, the feelings of good tidings and joy, join it with the opportunity to get together as a family, and voila, they have a festival they love to celebrate. Add Santa to the mix, the mystery and excitement, as well as the gift-giving and it's like Diwali in winter.
“There’s just this energy – the electricity in the air. We love the vibe. I haven’t felt that with Diwali or Hannukah,” says Sharma. But he also calls it “Giftmas.” Along with his wife Shelly, they “do the whole shebang” -- from the tree to the gifts.
The Kales, who immigrated to the United States 13 years ago, have adopted the norms for the sake of their sons daughters, Shaunak, 9 and Saumit, 6, who were born here.
“Christmas was such a big deal here,” Rupali Kale told News India Times. “When they were in kindergarten, the teachers would help them to make Christmas ornaments and tell them to put them on the tree at home. So that’s how we started getting a tree, to have a place for them to hang the ornaments!”
Families with children are perforce going to celebrate the festival here. And parents conspire to keep the Santa story alive. New parents Anuradha and Farzan Barucha of Atlanta are just beginning to find that out. Previously, they would attend the occasional party or two during Christmas, but didn't do anything much at home. Last year, however, they began putting up a Christmas tree with milk and cookies out for Santa for their daughter Miraya.
“Even though she is just a toddler, we thought we should start celebrating, as it will be a base for her memories,” Anuradha Barucha, a journalism professor at Georgia State University, told News India Times.
Living in America a country steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is impossible to stay immune from Christmas celebrations. Towns and cities put out their holiday decorations, there are special tree-lighting ceremonies and parades featuring Santa and Mrs. Claus. Then there are the huge trees at every mall, holiday music playing nonstop, sales and discounts at stores and retailers, holiday goodies and special meals at restaurants ... the list is endless.
“My parents came to the States before I was born, so I grew up with Christmas as a tradition, alongside Diwali and our regular pujas,” Neera Tanden, former senior health policy advisor with the Obama administration, told News India Times. She was brought up in Massachusetts.
“What is nice about Christmas is that a non-Christian tradition has grown up around the Christian one so that non-Christians like my family can experience the holidays ,” Tanden contends. Growing up the family exchanged gifts and even had stockings, “though my parents didn't really understand what to put in stockings until I was almost out of childhood,” she recalls. Today, she celebrates it as a non-Christian event.
“My children still believe in Santa,” says Kris Kolluri, lowering his voice as if that is the best-kept secret. The former transportation commissioner for New Jersey and his wife, Lopa, want their two young daughters to have active imaginations and beliefs. They treat all festivals, whether Diwali, Easter or Christmas, more as festivities and less about the religion, part of a deeper line of thought.
“You look at strife around the world and it is driven mainly by differences in culture and religion. If children see more commonality than differences – it can be incremental change,” Kris Kolluri says. “Every year, we gather the biggest tree we can fit in our house, and absolutely love decorating it. And for good measure, we put one of the three wise men on top.”
Christmas presses in from all directions starting just around Thanksgiving -- movies, music, lights, hot chocolate, fires burning -- and the whole ambience is hard to avoid or miss.
“I am not a Christian but I believe in Christmas,” Vikrant Singh, president of the Indian National Overseas Congress in Chicago, told News India Times. “For us, it is all about Santa, turkey, gifts, fun and games. My children ask me about Santa, so, I always present them beautiful gifts.”
For the estimated 600,000 Indian American Christians, as estimated by the Federation of Indian American Christians of North America, it is the most important time of year where they combine religious and non-religious observances.
Mathew George and his wife, Bindu, have been hosting a Christmas party at their home in Parsippany, N.J., for the last 12 years with a spread that includes traditional American staples like ham and roast chicken or turkey along with appams. “We have grown up having people over for Christmas and celebrating,” Mathew George, 40, told News India Times.
If anything, Indian Christians add greatly to the diversity of Christmas in America, lending a multitude of languages in which to sing praises and celebrate the birth of Christ -- Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati. And they belong to different denominations.
“Each denomination celebrates Christmas differently,” Beverly Jacob, 48, an Indian Christian living in the Bay Area, told News India Times. “Some don’t even celebrate it in a ceremonial way because they feel that the birth of Christ is something to be remembered every day of their lives. Most Indian Christians merge with their local churches like Jacob or some attend celebrations at churches where Indian Christians congregate and religious observance is balanced with the gift-giving and mall frenzy."
But many also get caught up in the "electricity" in the air, some said.
For Babu Varma, vice president of Christian Federation of Midwest, Christmas is a time for celebration. "It is also a time when we are infused with a kind, forgiving and charitable spirit that enables us all to have a good time," he told News Indian Times. But, he added, "It is also about exchange of gifts and merrymaking.”
According to Robert Goldman, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley, Christmas festivities are "easily separable from the religious content,” even for many Americans who are Christians. “Many Hindus celebrate it in India,” without facing the kind of opposition that Valentine’s Day engenders, he noted in an interview with News India Times.
There is even an equivalent Santa in the newly created “Tathastu Baba,” who adorns some places in Indian markets. For many non-Christians who grew up in India, Christmas is very much a secular festivity since it is a national holiday throughout India, and very much a shared celebration, a time for family get-togethers.
“Christmas is such a commercialized holiday that few can escape its allure, be they Christians or not,” Neela Pathak, a pre-school teacher in South Brunswick, N.J., told News India Times. "For most Indians it is hard not to get sucked into the whole holiday ambiance what with the shopping madness, the carols in public places, and the barrage of Christmas shows and music even on TV.”
And many Indians have no problems with that. Without diving into the major theoretical differences within Christianity about the festival, it is safe to say that Christmas in all its manifestations, is free for all to take the best.
“Christmas is a perfect opportunity for me to break away from my daily routine and consciously spread happiness and love around me," says Jitendra Diganvker of the Indo American Democratic Organization in Chicago. “I have always celebrated Christmas with great fervor and I believe that the warmth and joy of Christmas, brings us closer to each other.” He is spending a quiet dinner with close friends and family this year.
Jagdish Kanuri, president of Tri State Telugu Association, Naperville, Ill., also sees it as essentially a family time and one to celebrate. “I am looking forward to celebrating the festival with near and dear ones. That’s what festivals are all about for me,” he told News India Times.
In the ultimate analysis, it is all about feeling included, experiencing a sense of belonging, and being grateful for all that, Kolluri concludes.
Bhargavi Kulkarni in New York and N. Begum in Chicago contributed to this report.