South Asians and the ‘Spirit of Christmas’

Hoboken Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla on Dec. 15 at City Hall, where children from the Mustard Seed School sang Christmas carols. (Photo from Facebook page of Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla)

Indians and South Asians, be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, have diverse ways of marking the Christmas season, writes Ela Dutt in Desi Talk, displaying “a varied but open approach to a festival that only some of them espouse as a religious one.”

There are about 35 Indian Christian churches in New York and New Jersey alone, reports Dutt, who notes that in a Pew Research study based on the 2010 census, 18% of Indian-Americans identified themselves as Christian, 51 percent as Hindus, 10 percent as Muslim and 1 percent as Sikh.

The Church of South India Malayalam Congregation of Greater New York has a Christmas Carol service planned for Dec. 23, and prayers and gatherings scheduled for its members. It is the largest Church of South India congregation in North America, started in the 1980s, according to its website, and is now located in Seaford, Long Island. The St. Johns Mar Thoma Church in Queens Village has the Holy Communion and Christmas Day service on Dec. 25. This church began in 1990 with just 17 families and has grown to more than 240 families.

Desi Talk writes about many non-Christian South Asian families which nonetheless observe Christmas in some fashion.

New Jersey resident Shahnaz Sheikh’s father and grandfather were in the Indian and British Armies respectively. Despite her being a Muslim, Christmas was celebrated in her house way before she was born and growing up, she witnessed her mother frying kal-kals and baking fruit cakes, and she herself joined friends to go carol singing in India. As a Manhattanite for 30 years, Sheikh put up a Christmas tree in her apartment, and brought much of that fun of Christmas with her to the U.S. She looks forward to it, she says, as much as the Hindu festival of Diwali. “Shopping is also a big part of it. I love getting gifts for others.”

Ravinder Bhalla, a Sikh civil rights lawyer and politician who is the Mayor-elect of Hoboken [he will be inaugurated Jan. 1, 2018], had to “combat fake news that he would be canceling Christmas.”

He told News India Times that mainstream new papers called him to find out if the story was true. “Are you joking?” Bhalla retorted. In fact, he officiated during the lighting of the City Hall Christmas tree in Hoboken, and he has addressed several church congregations during their Christmas services in the city over the last few weeks.

Bhalla has two children, a 5 year old son and 10 year old daughter. “We’re of course Sikh, and don’t celebrate Christmas in a religious way,” he said. “But there’s a cultural aspect to it. We definitely celebrate the Christmas spirit.” At his home, there’s been a Christmas tree with ornaments, and a plate of cookies and a glass of milk are left on Christmas Eve for Santa. “Our 5 year old has written to Santa Claus and posted the letter to the North Pole and of course said what a good boy he’s been. And he is keeping his fingers crossed he will be getting a nice gift,” Bhalla says. The couple makes sure kids go to sleep early on Christmas Eve and the morning is just so exciting. “It’s a family time of giving and sharing,” he said.


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