Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years make the end of the calendar top heavy with holidays. With that comes a multitude of traditions and rituals that are part of what we consider the “holiday” season.
Traditions serve as a touchstone. Things that we do together that remind us of our commonality, a shortcut to a thought and feeling space that can anchor us together. A mutually intelligible language. But how do those traditions live in us and get passed on?
Your grandparents are immigrants and your mama and I are first generation children. (Or are we second generation immigrants? I never could get a definitive answer on that.) Even so, I grew up with a Christmas tree and Santa and presents and putting up lights and many of the associated customs. Part of being an immigrant is learning how to mesh cultural traditions, and your grandparents eagerly seized on learning and adopting certain ones in their new country. My dad would take us to New York City every holiday season. We’d walk around Rockefeller Plaza, see the decorated Macy’s windows, check out the lights, maybe take in a show at Radio City Music Hall. I still can’t smell a roasting chestnut without instantly being transported back almost 40 years to handling a warm bag by the food vendor.
All that may not have been something your grandparents grew up with, but those sorts of traditions are impossible to resist. They get soaked into our psyche through osmosis.
And it’s just not those “holiday” traditions that we mostly follow as a society. It’s part of what makes us American. Toasting the new year with a glass of champagne. The summer grill. A fully laden Thanksgiving table. Watching the Super Bowl. Even as immigrants we sought to emulate and adopt all of these in our own way. Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a sitdown dinner with turkey, but a feast nonetheless spent with friends and family. If traditions are a language, we all speak with our different inflection. Mutually understandable to be sure, but we impart our own small imprint upon them. All American, but with our own nuance.
In a smaller way, for us as Indian-Americans, we have other traditions that bind us together. Diwali. Weddings. Going to the temple. Cultural dances like a Garba or Dandia Raas. Food. Customs that were taken from the old country by your grandparents and adopted by circumstance and available resources by what they had here. Customs recognizable as “Indian”, but necessarily with our own imprint.
Part of my -and your – blessing is the ability to dive into both pools and take on both.
But there are other “smaller” traditions, not global in scale but local. They are just as important – if not more – than the other.
In our family, whenever we would sit down for a movie your grandmother would slip off while we were paying attention to the TV at some point. We wouldn’t notice she’d be gone, but suddenly there was that unmistakable smell and sound of the chopping of bananas and frying batter. Our mouths would immediately water and she’d bring out these kera (banana) bhajias in batches with a generous side of wedged lemon, which dad would ceremoniously squeeze over the entire plate before we gobbled them up. We’d eat them with our mouths half-open lest we scald our tongues from the still steaming oil. If we were lucky, mom would ask if we wanted “cold coffee”, a saccharine concoction of sugar, instant coffee and ice. The blender would whine, drowning out the movie, but we wouldn’t care. Even now when we’re together and mention “cold coffee”, we all harken back to those times and mom invariably half-stands asking if we all want some. But if I go into any other family, I’d say “cold coffee” and I’d be met with blank looks. I’d explain the drink, but it’s impossible to convey the mutual feeling of love, comfort and satiation that comes with it.
Apart from those “bigger” traditions that tie us to society, each and every family has their own rituals, traditions and language that’s in their DNA. DNA that might get passed down to the next generation, albeit in altered form.
So that leads me to the operative question: What traditions are we creating in our family?
It seems as if your mom and I are more intentional about the traditions we are creating. First-day-of-school ice-cream for dinner, for example. Our annual calendar. Made up words that only we understand. Small things to be sure, but it’s part of what makes our family unique.
As you get older, these traditions will change. Experiencing part of Christmas morning at your cousin’s house will change, especially as we all get older. The individual branches of our family will blossom and sprout and take root on their own, including your branch. Part of the transition from generation to generation is to figure out which traditions your take on for yourselves and what you shed.
Regardless, it’s inevitable you’ll take some of that family DNA we’ve created with you. Along with Santa Claus.