A Peacock in a Pear Tree?

This time last year, my father came home from a Costco rampage looking even more bright-eyed than usual after an hour of hungrily raiding warehouse shelves among hundreds of other holiday shoppers. I braced myself as he prepared to tell me what he had purchased this time, but as usual, nothing- including a childhood being raised by Indians, as I like to put it- could have quite prepared me for what he was about to show me.

A Holiday Peacock.  A blinding, sparkling, blue-and-green bird with majestic plumage and iridescent lights. America’s booming multinational corporation had ventured into the exotic South Asian department for its holiday décor that year, and my dad, like the gullible first-generation immigrant he was, had taken the bait quite joyfully.

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This peacock, according to my father, would be the highlight of our holidays. We would move our usual foyer decorations aside and place this massive sparkling bird dead center in the entryway of our home, such that every visitor during the Christmas season would have no choice but to trip over the creature on their way through our front door.

Small moments like this have set my holidays apart from a young age. Maybe it started when I was five years old and heard about Santa Claus from my daycare teachers. That day I came home and asked my parents about this mysterious jolly man who was supposed to bring us presents. I believe the conversation went, “But mom, that can’t be true. It doesn’t make sense, right?” “Oh, that’s true beta*, it doesn’t sound right to us either”. And thus the illusion of Santa was shattered long before many of my comrades had even fully begun to relish in his magic.

Perhaps, actually, “Indian Christmas” truly began when I brought mom and dad to the piano room and attempted to engage them in a round of Jingle Bells, which I had just learned to play in music class. There was something about the thick Indian accents stuttering out the chorus of this song that made me double over in laughter as I tried to play the accompaniment.

It is a hilarious, sometimes bittersweet, and utterly unique affair growing up in this country as a second-generation immigrant, and this experience is fortified by the traditions of Christmastime in Newfoundland. I very much doubt that my parents ever fathomed living on a cold, snowy, rock where people dress in aprons and mismatched clothes every December to knock on each other’s doors for a jig and a drink. They certainly did not picture themselves attending school Christmas concerts and music recitals where children sing about the birth of Jesus Christ. One year, when hearing me rehearse “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” for a choir performance, my father went as far as to ask me, “Why don’t you sing more songs about Krishna instead?”  I started practicing in my room from that time onwards.

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For my part, I would put excessive, furious energy into showing the world just how festive the Raheja family was. For each time I was asked “Do you celebrate Christmas?” I would add an ornament to the tree, a garland to the banister, a star to the window. Every time my childhood best friend jumped with joy counting down the days, I would jump with her, pretending that I, too, would be going home to an advent calendar with one more piece of chocolate waiting for me to mark time until the big day. There has never been a year that her mother- my surrogate mom if you will- hasn’t asked me, “Do you guys have a tree?” of course, forgetting she had asked me this precisely one year ago. Every year, with increasing force, I aggressively proclaim the efforts I went through to decorate my house for Christmas. I am not sure what I have been trying to prove all this time, but I think Dr. Seuss would agree that the answer does not lie in presents, chocolate, or Christmas trees for that matter.

The truth is that I have never felt left out the celebrations of this province, and I owe this all to the beautiful people who have taken me in as a surrogate daughter, sister, and grandchild, embracing me into the customs of their families and allowing me to incorporate my own heritage into the wonderful new colours that this culture has to offer.

The family of a long-time friend hosts a caroling party every December. I have yet to miss a year of this ebullient festivity during which children, great and small, gather outside and knock on door after door singing slightly off-key notes to the classic carols of our time. Later in the night, we gather around the piano with hot chocolate as my friend’s uncle guides us through song after song. A childhood full of music, laughter, and family is what I remember when I think back to those moments. They remind me, each year that a family does not always come in the form of blood relatives or people who share my tanned skin or dark hair. Sometimes, the people who relate to you are the ones singing carols by your side on Christmas Eve.

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Indian culture holds a value for hospitality. It emphasizes the importance of feeding guests, often to the bursting point, when they stop by to visit. It also exemplifies a respect for elders and the love of relatives, both immediate and extended. To think that I spent most of my childhood feeling like my parents pulled me between two cultures is a concept that makes me laugh in retrospect. To reflect on the fears of my mother that I will “lose” her culture after growing up in Newfoundland is ironic.  Sitting around a dinner table being asked about your love life? Having extended family comment on your eating habits and drinking tendencies? These are phenomena that transcend cultural and geographic barriers. I can personally attest to that fact.

During Indian Christmas this year, I intend to take a little more pride in the fact that I straddle two not-so-different cultures wherever I go. Whether or not I choose this identity, I am a bridge between two lands and two masses of people who do not always see their similarities. Sure, the Indians would probably add a little turmeric to the Peas Pudding, but where’s the harm in some extra condiments?

*Beta- affectionate Hindi term for one’s child