A Festival Is Only What You Make It

An Atlas Cedar -- my favorite conifer!

I know this comes 2 weeks late, but that is the intention! Because this is not a post about the recently past Christmas, but about the many Christmases I celebrated as a child, many years ago, and how much I miss them as I watch the Christmases of today.

As a child Christmas was perhaps the only festival I really got to celebrate with full participation!  That may sound strange, since I’ve grown up in India, but the fact is that my parents, both of who were Hindus, regarded religion as a private thing.  They each practiced separately, prayed at home or visited temples individually.  But they never forced the religion, the practices or even the festivals on us.  So the only festival, that we as children ended up celebrating in India, was Christmas!  And that’s because we attended private convent schools, that were run by nuns, most of who, then in the 70’s, were Irish or Anglo-Indian (Eurasian).

There always was a few weeks of excitement and preparation leading up to Christmas, in our schools, that we as Children loved.  There would be a Christmas concert with carols etc. and each class had its own Christmas party with a Christmas tree and presents etc.   Our Christmas presents followed a pot-luck system.  All the students of a class would each bring a wrapped present in the week leading up to the Christmas party and leave it under the class Christmas tree.  Then on the day of the party, we would have our cake, blow some balloons, play some games, and then somberly sit around the tree, as each child walked up to the presents, and picked one out of the pile.  If there were 30 students in class there would be 30 presents, one for each child.  The present each of us had to bring had to be of a certain value that we’d be told of, and this amount was usually very, very low — about Rs.5/- or less!  It could cost as little as we wanted to spend, or we did not need to spend at all.  We could be creative and just make the present ourselves!  More so, it had to be something that either boys or girls could use, since we had both boys and girls in class.  The reason it was set up this way, was because the schools even though they were private and relatively expensive, also took in many students for free, whose families were very poor and could not afford to send them to school.

No one ever knew who gave what present!  But there was always an excitement about the opening and discovery of our gifts.  And the beauty of this system was, that it did not matter whether you were rich or poor — you brought what you could to the table, and you received with love and delight whatever gift was in your fate!!! Later, the entrance fees that we collected from the Christmas concert in the evening, would be all sent to different charities.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I always said, that Christmas was my most favorite festival.  It was not about religion (I am an atheist I should emphasize), but about a certain feeling of humanness and connectivity, and learning to find enjoyment in little!!  Later, when I moved to the U.S., the contrast in the spirit of Christmas hit me hard.  It was about consumption, and who spent how much on what, and how many gifts one got, and whether or not you could get your parents or spouses to buy you that very expensive thing you’ve had your eye on for a long time.  Or it was about how big and long your Christmas lunches were.  Or, as I discovered with some, it was about going to church and listening to long, boring sermons on the life of Christ that most didn’t hear as they dozed off!

Here in India now, after returning I find that the young, urban modern Indians are trying to revive Christmas in the western way — with big extravagant parties in hotels and clubs, big booze, and big money, and big presents.  Pretty much like they do all the other Indian festivals — Diwali, Holi and the New Year!!  And I don’t attend anymore, because I keep expecting that joy and anticipation I felt celebrating Christmas as a child —  and I’m always disappointed.

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  1. We celebrate Christmas with big fancy artificial tree we got on sale for %90 off. I set it up and Vimala brings down the big plastic boxes and bags that hold all the decorations. Our children and their children come over to exchange gifts after a big meal of international and traditional american food. This year we had ‘secret Santa’ (we draw names). We only have to buy one gift. I was born in an American christian family, but I am not religious, either. When the house is empty I just sit by the tree with my guitar and sing my yoga songs. This year my wife got me an I-Pad, but I decided I did not need it and took it back to the store. So much money for a toy.

    When i was a child in the 1950’s Christmas was a wonderful time. It was the time of year that my wishes came true. I got a BB gun or a Bicycle or an electric train or something else that was special. We had a real tree and a real fire place. Mother would put up socks for us and on Christmas day the socks would be filled with oranges, English Walnuts, Brazil nuts and sometime a little toy. My brother, sister and I were so excited we always got up at 4 am. I remember being so tired when Mom would call us to the breakfast table for eggs, bacon or sausage, grits, toast or biscuits and may some pear or fig jam.

  2. Tomás Bale

     /  January 17, 2012

    Love it Rita, my ‘Feast of the Returning Sun’ has always been much like your Christmas (which replaced it). Presents are brought by everyone, maximum cost €5.00 (about 324 INR), but tied with a pink or blue ribbon to indicate specially for female or male use. Genderless ones any other colour. Our songs are about nature and life – no religion, we drum the sun down with African rhythms on jembe drums and then the party begins. I do do a little ceremony with two candles saying goodbye to winter and welcoming the returning sun but that is as close as we get to religion.



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