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An Indian Christmas In America

A celebration in many languages, many cuisines, many traditions ...

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Ever eaten this at Christmas?

Duck Moile, Chicken Shakuti, Pork Innad, Beef Stew and colorful Wedding Rice bedecked with caramelized onions, raisins, nuts and sliced boiled eggs. All this topped with an array of sweets including Kul-Kul, Thali Sweets, Milk Cream and Rose-de-Coque.

If you're an Indian Christian, your traditional Christmas cuisine travels with you - no matter where you go in the world. Christopher and Beverly D'Souza, who came to America just five years ago via Bombay and Abu Dhabi, serve this eclectic feast at their holiday table, a menu which crisscrosses various Christian communities in India.

 
Indian Americans at Christmas midnight Mass at the St. John Church of the Jersey City, N.J.
Beverly,  who is Indian and was born and brought up in Abu Dhabi,  not only cooks the meals of her childhood but also those of Christopher's, who is from Mangalore. On their festive holiday table you'll find Chicken Khadi and Duck Moile, which are East Indian specialties as well as Chicken Shakuti which is a Goan dish. There's also Pork Innad, a Mangalorean dish and the Anglo Indian Beef Stew.

Christmas meals amongst the Indian Christians are elaborate, holiday worthy meals under whose weight a table can literally groan. The meal starts with appetizers like Ground Meat and Potato Croquettes or Fried Potato Chops filled with meat; this tradition has changed to also include the more healthy ground chicken, turkey or vegetables.

There's also the weird-sounding Salted Tongue, of which Beverly says: "This may seem quite strange to a lot of people, but is a delicacy for some. However this tradition is changing with modern families and is rarely eaten out of India. Also, since we did not celebrate Thanksgiving in India, many homes also had the Stuffed and Roasted Pig, Chicken, Turkey or Goose served on the table ready to be carved.  Some of these traditions continued when we migrated."

 

The annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting attracts millions around the world.

She adds that besides the curries, Pork Sorpotal and Vindaloo are other traditional dishes served at Christmas and each of the Christian communities has their own recipes for these dishes. Breads served by East Indians include Fugias while Mangaloreans and Goans serve Sannas, which look like idlis, but taste very different.

With the approach of Christmas, Indian Christians are celebrating the birth of Christ not only with their many different celebratory meals, but also raising their voices in prayer in many tongues including Malayalam, Telegu, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati, besides English.

 "The Indian Christian population in the US is quite diverse, both in its denominational and linguistic identification, with significant numbers of  Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants, including Pentecostal," says Raymond B. Williams, author of Christian Pluralism in the United States: the Indian Immigrant Experience (Cambridge University Press). He says there is a representative group of almost all the churches present in India, which are often organized in denominational or linguistic groups.

According to Abraham Mammen, President of the Federation of Indian American Christians of North America (FIACONA), a US based umbrella organization, "Each denomination celebrates Christmas differently. Some don't even celebrate it in a ceremonial way, because they feel that the birth of Christ is something to be remembered every day of their lives. It is a fact, though, that Christmas is the most important day of their lives, of God coming to earth as a man. For Indian Christians in America, I've seen that regardless of how long we've been here, our roots still go back to India." 

 

Mohina Josen goes all out at Christmas.

Indian Christians participate in mainstream worship or at their own churches, which have been established across the U.S.  Visit the Long Island Mar Thoma Church in Merrick, Long Island, and you hear Christmas carols being sung in Malayalam, by the congregation, many of them bedecked in rich silk saris. A festive meal shared by Keralite Christians after the services at their church included many ethnic dishes, including chicken curry, pullao, appam or pancakes, and payasam or rice pudding.

"We bring our own music, our own costumes and our own way of caroling at Christmas," says Rev Jos Kandathikudy of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church. "The carolers dress up in Indian garb as Jesus, Mother Mary and the Three Kings from the East, and our musicians use Indian drums for their blend of Malayalam and English carols."

Celebrating Christmas in America can be quite a revelation for immigrants who have grown up in other countries. Beverly D'Souza, who grew up in the Middle East, had never seen snow and saw her first magical snowflakes on a White Christmas in New York. "It was the first time I encountered a winter wonderland Christmas. It was snowing all day and we went to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. I just love the streets and the lights and the shopping. In Abu Dhabi the streets were lit up for Ramadan, but never for Christmas. That's why this is so special for me."

 

Luke D’Souza’s first Christmas at Macy’s.

Christmas was, however, not a lonely time in Abu Dhabi, because Christian families still get together for parties, Christmas bazaars and concerts in schools and also organized dance parties at the five star hotels.

One custom Indian Christian communities delight in is their holiday desserts, and although there are several Portuguese influences in the main dishes of several Christian communities, the Indian influences prevails in the spicing and in the sweets. There are the traditional sweets like Mixed Fruit Cake, Plum Cake and Date Cake, but the Indian mithai influence is found in Marzipan, Milk Cream, Cordials, which are all cashew nut or almond based. Do Dol is made of rice flour, jaggery, cashew nut and flour dough while Thalie Sweets are suji (cream of wheat) and egg based. Deep fried Kul Kuls and Nankhatais or cookies are also a must in the spread of holiday sweets.

The D'Souzas make many of these sweets during the holiday season. She says, "Tradition has been carried across the oceans. Even here friends from Connecticut and upstate New York come with their homemade sweets to visit each other. When my mother is in town, all the sweets are made at home." 

After midnight mass, the D'Souzas visit close friends for coffee and fruitcake, and on Christmas morning their three year old son Luke opens the presents that Santa has brought him. The Santa Claus tradition is strong with Indian Christians, be they in India, the Middle East or in America. Over the years Beverly has seen Santa arrive in Goa, Mumbai and Abu Dhabi by boat, chariot and even a helicopter - and now her son sees him arrive in the neon-lit glitz of Macy's, probably by subway or cab!

 

It is difficult not be infected by the shopping bug at Christmas.

For Mike Lulla of Oklahoma City, Okla., Christmas has a very special meaning, because he discovered his Christian faith late in life. A Sindhi Hindu from Hong Kong, he was one of the hundreds of traveling mail order salesmen who came to the U.S. in the 1970s to book orders for their tailoring businesses back in Asia. According to Lulla, about a 100 of these traveling salesmen embraced Christianity, he among them. "Most of us are Evangelical Christians who were led to Lord by the gospel of Jesus Christ," he says. "I'm the only Sindhi Christian here but there are also Malayalee, Telegu, Tamil, Punjabi and Gujarati Christians in Oklahoma City."

Lulla, who is originally from Pune, goes to a mainstream Baptist Church and is the only Indian in that church. He is one of the co-founders of India Association of Oklahoma and is deeply involved in the organization of Diwali celebrations, even though he is a deeply religious Christian. His house is dressed for Christmas and the mantelpiece is decorated with the Holy Cross and fresh flowers. He says, "Jesus is the focal point of Christmas, not Santa Claus." 

His Christmas is very Christ-oriented and revolves around the church. On Christmas Eve the family attends midnight mass and the next day a full day program in church with a reading of the special Christmas message from the Bible. The family also goes caroling from door to door to the homes mainstream Christians in his neighborhood. At home, Lulla, his wife Kamlesh, children - Munesh, Jay, Julie and Justin - exchange gifts with family and guests who are invited home for the festivities.

While Christmas is important to Indian Christians as a celebration of faith, many non-Christians enjoy it as a secular holiday in ways small and big. Indeed, Christmas is such a huge, high voltage commercialized event in America that its is difficult to escape its allure, Christians or not. For most Indians it's hard not to get sucked into the whole holiday ambiance of shopping madness, carols in public places, and the barrage of Christmas shows and music on TV.

 
According to U.S. census figures for 2006, retail sales by the nation's department stores rung up during the Christmas season is a boggling $31.4 billion, of which $485 million is spent on Christmas trees alone; the value of Christmas tree ornaments from China is $605 million, and of stuffed toys $639 million! A whopping 20 billion letters and packages were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. You'd have to be a Grinch to brush off the festive season surrounding you as magically and persistently as falling snowflakes.

Non-Christians who grew up in India have experienced Christmas as a secular festival since Christmas is a national holiday throughout India, a shared celebration, a time for family get-togethers and celebrations at hotels and private homes.

Sapna and Sunil Hassaram of Raleigh, N.C., who immigrated to the U.S. 13 years ago, have adopted Christmas festivities for the sake of their two daughters, Janesha and Valina, who were born here. "Christmas is such a big deal here," says Sapna. "When they were in kindergarten, the teachers would help them to make Christmas ornaments and tell them to put them on the tree at home. So that's how we started getting a tree, to have a place for them to hang the ornaments! They were also excited to get presents from their teachers."

 
The children heard all about Santa's impending arrival and so the family played along on this new tradition, getting them little presents for Christmas, toys and new clothes they could show their friends the next day in school. Now that the girls are older, they still set up the tree, but are wiser about Santa Claus. For years, they kept out milk and cookies for Santa, and Sunil would have to hurriedly take a few sips of the milk and bites out of the cookie before they woke, to prove that Santa had visited. The girls still expect Christmas gifts, which have kept up with their age, such as Ipods, so the spirit of the season continues to be cherished. They go to the mall to see the beautiful decorations and look forward to the festive season. "We get together to do things as a family and for us it's an occasion to bind as a family," says Sapna. "One Christmas we went into a kiosk to try on wigs and see how we all looked with different hairdos. It was really a fun time."

Sapna treasures the memories and Christmas ornaments Janesha and Valina made as small children. Now that the girls are tweens, they look forward to the gifts, to the thrill of putting colored lights outside the house after Thanksgiving and setting up the tree.

 
One person who takes Christmas very seriously is Mohina Josen, a second generation Indian American who grew up in New York.  She and her husband Ricky Tejpaul buy their most expensive, big ticket items at Christmas; the kids get elaborate gift wrapped packages. The family sets up not one, but two elaborate trees and hosts a rocking holiday party with Santa Claus, elves and all the trimmings - and even a pre-Christmas party to start up the festivities! 

The couple is open to every festival and besides celebrating their own Sikh and Hindu festivals, they also celebrate Christmas and American festivals like Thanksgiving, Halloween and Valentine's Days. From a young age, she saw Christmas being celebrated by her friends. Mohina also remembers going to Christmas celebrations at the home of a Catholic family friend and the tradition just carried on.  The family has many relatives in Europe and travels there during the Christmas holidays to celebrate together.

"When you're a child and you're going to school the next day, you'd always hear from others 'What did you get from Santa?' It was a thrill opening the gifts," she recalls. "We did it for the whole commercial aspect of it, for the children to have fun, for Santa Claus and for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."

While her mother hosts Thanksgiving and her mother-in-law Diwali, Mohina, who now has two little daughters of her own, Zarina and Sabina, has appropriated Christmas. All the holidays are now taken care of! 

Mohina goes all the way with Christmas: decorating the house the Saturday before Christmas, putting up two live trees and smaller trees on another floor of the house. There's a pre-holiday party where friends and family drop in to help with the decorations, sip hot chocolate with marshmallows and sing carols. Having grown up here, she has friends from many races and they have made a tradition of baking together for their children's schools as well as for colleagues at work.

"The children have made out their lists for Santa, and I tell them that whatever Santa can bring, he will," she says. "They've already written letters to him, telling him how wonderful they've been and on Christmas they keep out cookies and milk for Santa, and something for Rudolph and the other reindeers." 

The family also has a tradition of doing some Christmas activities in Manhattan such as going to the Radio City Music Hall or a holiday show like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. At her Christmas party, she hosts 20 to 40 family members and friends serving a huge, traditional American feast, from leg of lamb to all the trimmings and desserts. One year, she recalls, she actually created homemade chocolates encased in chocolate sleds for the guests as take-home party favors.

For second generation Indian Americans who have grown up surrounded by Christmas and Christian friends, it's a part of their American experience and as new parents they desire to pass it on to their children. "There's a holiday spirit and the euphoria of the whole month and I think that's what we are celebrating," says Mohina. "We start with Diwali, Thanksgiving and Guru Nanakji's birth, and so we just continue celebrating."

Indian- Americans also celebrate with many social and work-related holiday parties. It seems the perfect time to throw a bash since the whole country is in celebration mode. It's a convenient time to get together with friends as the season has a light work schedule - a perfect opportunity to organize a get-together, which is not always possible on Diwali, which often falls on a weekday.

As the Christmas season draws closer, Beverly D'souza is leaving with her husband and son for India to celebrate a real typical, down-home Indian Christmas with family and friends in Goa, while Mohina Josen is preparing for her big holiday party and making plans to take 7-year-old Zarina to a children's cooking class to learn how to make and color sugar cookies for Christmas.

It's the season for traditions, preserving old ones and creating new ones.  

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Jen December 14, 2007 at 3:13 PM
Does anyone sell thali sweet and other sweets here in America? I would love to order some.
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Religion | Life | Magazine | December 2007

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