Two decades ago many Hindu immigrants felt more compelled than they do today to participate in Christmas festivities, since their children were young and wanted to be a part of whatever the mainstream was doing. In those days, the Hindu population was much smaller, and so Hindu festivals were hardly celebrated in the lavish way they are today in America. Sneha Mehta, the Atlanta chapter president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization, recalls that when her children were very young, they wanted a Christmas tree and she would put up a small one in their living room.
"When they were very little, we didn't scold them or tell them they couldn't have a tree," Mehta says. "Most of the parents that I've interacted with let their children have the fun part of Christmas but also explain to them about their own faith. Children have a lot of grasping power and sometimes it is our fault for not explaining it to them--they understand it very well."
In some ways, the situation in America is not all that different from India. For Hindus from India, Christmas is a familiar festival: It's a national holiday and non-Christians celebrate it as a festive occasion with holiday parties. You can hardly go to a hotel during the holiday season without hearing Christmas carols.
But as the Hindu community has grown in the U.S. and Canada, parents feel less pressure to get a Christmas tree or gifts for their children, because their own Hindu festivals have become so grand and participatory.
"We have so many Hindu festivals that involve kids. Sometimes our gift giving gets out of control!" says Rathi Raja, director of the Manhasset, N.Y.-based Young Indian Culture Group and chair of its Hindu Studies department. "I think the Hindu community is in a very festive mode with parties and temple activities. I don't think Hindus are missing out. Now there are enough Indians and enough Hindu activities around--you don't feel the disconnect. The kids can say, 'Hey, we have a good time too!'"
Even as Hindu communities have grown larger and stronger in America, many continue to celebrate Christmas--not out of a feeling of obligation but out of choice. Raja says that her family puts up a tree and they get gifts, which she has been doing since her children were young. They also have a Christmas Eve party with family and friends.
"Some years we've been adventurous and even had Santa Claus, but clearly it's not a religious event for us--it's really a social event," she says. "The whole country is on a holiday and we get into the spirit of it. It's really become secular, just as in India Diwali has become much more than just a Hindu festival."
Christmas, to her, is even something of a relief.
"I look forward to the Christmas season because I see it as the least-stressful festival, right on the heels of Navratri and Diwali. It's a time when everyone else is going crazy--and we are not," Raja says.
One common strategy for countering the influence of Christmas on young children is to give extra emphasis to the joyous holidays on the Hindu calendar. Many parents make sure that Hindu festivals are festive and fun for their children, with huge Diwali celebrations, including fireworks and storytelling, along with new clothes, sweets, and gifts.
"After that, my daughters never asked for a Christmas tree..."
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She adds, "I have three children and I have learned that if you share with children they understand a lot. If you don't share, they don't know what to think of it."
In multicultural America today, many Hindu kids no longer feel awkward for not celebrating Christmas; in major urban centers, they're surrounded by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and others who do not celebrate the birth of Christ either. It is still difficult for those Hindu children in homogenous smaller towns, but many schools have diversity programs where Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Diwali are acknowledged.
Hindu parents often take the extra step of distributing sweets and gifts to their children's classmates to introduce them to Diwali. Doing so makes Hindu children feel that their community also has its special moments. And for some, that spirit extends beyond the classroom to the larger world; Mehta says that her children dress up and take sweets to school for Diwali, while she wears a festive sari to work and distributes holiday sweets to her co-workers.
Though many Hindus continue to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, the feeling is not universal.
Urmila Shivaram, a New York physician, says that she received a wake-up call when her young daughter asked for a Christmas tree. Soon after, Shivaram started setting up during Navratri and Dusshera the gombe--a beautiful display of miniature dolls, vehicles, and cooking utensils, which in the South Indian tradition is placed with lights on a decorative step ladder. Like Christmas decorations, these are brought out annually during Navratri and Dusshera.
For the nine nights of Navratri, Shivaram took her daughters to friends' homes for elaborate celebrations where the gombes, each one more decorative than the other, were set up.
"After that, my daughters never asked for a Christmas tree. All our Hindu festivals are fun and the children look forward to them," she says. "My children have never looked for Christmas gifts because they get what they want at Diwali. When they were five or six, they asked for a Christmas tree but I explained to them that it was not our tradition."
At the same time, celebrating Christmas is for some Hindus more than just an exercise in Americanization. As more and more Hindus marry outside their faith, a whole range of interfaith families are being created who join their loved ones at church at Christmas or sit together at a Passover seder and also worship Lakshmi at Diwali. Joined in love and family, they come to believe that all faiths are truly one.
And that sentiment is not isolated to interfaith families. For many Hindus, the all-embracing spirit of the faith captures the essential meaning of the holiday season--that every grain of the universe, Christmas trees and carols and angels included--is all part of the Almighty, the Paramatma.
Many Hindu spiritual leaders believe this, and at the Sadhu Vaswani Center in New Jersey, the congregation participates in a holiday toy drive to give Christmas gifts to the needy. The slogan is, "To Be Happy, Make Others Happy. Join in the spirit of giving and sharing!"
Nowhere, perhaps, is the sense of oneness of all humanity expressed more beautifully than at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Rathi Raja often spends the festive season there and rings in the New Year with bhajans. She says, "In that very Hindu atmosphere, in the prayer hall there is a holiday tree, and the children get gifts on Christmas Day. It's wonderful, and to me this reflects the true Hindu spirit."