Do you want to celebrate Diwali or Christmas this year?
I was asked this question religiously every fall by my parents, though we always celebrated both. This question was actually was code for:
Do you want a Diwali gift or a Christmas gift?
On Diwali, my brother and I would shower and obediently put on the matching Indian clothes my mother had made for us from beautiful but itchy fabric. We would then sit on the couch in the living room and my dad would put on the Shirdi Ke Sai Baba record. My mom would circle my brother’s and my face with a lit oil lamp to bless us. This was followed by my mom directing us to get on our knees and place our heads on my parents’ feet for further blessing. Then we would watch my mother, the fuel of our home, place her head on our dad’s feet. While prostration is a standard Hindu custom, we engaged in this practice only on Diwali day and the formality of this act served as a perfect metaphor for my awkward and stiff memory of celebrating this festival.
Christmas was also accompanied by its share of formality but we didn’t feel divided, parents vs. children, but rather like a family endeavor. My brother and I would put up our four-foot artificial tree, which my mother jokingly referred to as “malnutrioned,” and soaked it in tinsel and lights, as though the tree was actually a Hindu altar. We even replaced the traditional angel or star on the top of the tree with a cardboard cutout of Krishna or Rama. On Christmas morning, the four of us sat together under our tree, which was a rare event in and of itself. As we got older, my brother and I learnt that our parents had never really celebrated Christmas until they had us—another immigrant effort to help us “fit in.” It’s hard not to feel the weight and force of assimilation in this discovery.
While both celebrations are generally problematic in similar ways, particularly in their upholding of patriarchy and capitalism, and flawed in our celebration of them, I am still grateful we did. At the core, these celebrations were lights in the midst of an adamant winter, days outside of the routine, days to look forward to.
Both celebrations are also built around the idea of coming home. Diwali marks the day when Sita and Rama came home after being banished to the forest for fourteen years, and every corner, doorstep and windowsill in their hometown Ayodhya was lit up with deepas to help them find their way. Christmas is often marked by people coming home to be with their families. As I have aged and continued to celebrate these holidays, I have translated this theme of homecoming into something deeper—finding my way home to myself at the end of a long year. My favourite Christmas songs and Hindu prayers aren’t the joyful ones about jingling bells or Shiva’s booming drums, but rather the ones that reflect this longing, this seeking. Diwali and Christmas are occasions to be grateful, to be contemplative, to consume many sweet foods, and to dream the year ahead. Until January inevitably arrives, the cold persists for another four, sometimes five months, and my mental health deteriorates rapidly. During this time, it’s often the afterglow of Diwali and Christmas, and the hope of spring, that propels me.
These dualities—the relationships between light and darkness, joy and sadness, warmth and cold, creativity and custom, hope and despair, love and loneliness—continue to surface for me during these holidays and are the inspirations behind All of the Lights.