The American Hindu December Dilemma

Come December, life in America becomes one big celebration, with a joyous countdown to Christmas Day. Glittering holiday décor at stores, endless parties, TV and radio stations blaring Christmas music, and of course, mountains of gifts can all make the season overwhelming for those who aren’t Christian. They are left with a choice–to become part of it all or remain the outsider. Hindus in America have chosen both routes: Some participate in the holiday season to keep their children happy and treat Christmas as a secular festival, while others feel they should not celebrate it at all, since it is not their festival.

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.