Sarita Sarvate

San Jose Mercury News Opinion


Immigrant resists compulsion to be merry and bright

New Year’s resolutions bring with them the bittersweet taste of promises unkept, desires unquenched, longings unfulfilled.

Americans Frantically Pursue Happy Holidays


I still look back fondly on my first Christmas in America, the Christmas when I didn’t know I was supposed to be happy. It was the one Christmas when I could safely feel like an outsider without noticing the oppressive absence of a family. It was the only Christmas when the excitement of my arrival in America far outweighed the longing for my native country.

Alas, by next Christmas, I had gone native enough to participate in odd rituals such as the late night walking of shopping malls, and the gawking at gift shops full of Royal Doulton tea sets, even though I had no one to buy them for. Because, by then, the American media had corrupted me to believe that I had to buy something for someone in order to celebrate Christmas.

And in the midst of this shopping compulsion, and the watching of sappy old movies on TV, there often erupted deep within me a sensation of being a foreigner in a strange land. To this day, in the midst of the opening of presents with my young children, a sense of utter displacement overcomes me. This sense of alienation, the feeling of belonging and yet not belonging, is what signifies the holiday season for us immigrants, I suppose.

Growing up in a free India, I had of course been aware of Christmas, the religious festival of our erstwhile British masters. On Christmas mornings, a secular India woke up to the sounds of carols on All India Radio. On Christmas evenings, the whole country watched electric lights go up on the roofs of Christian houses. But nothing could have prepared me for the shock of an American Christmas. Turkeys on sale, tinsel on office walls, Christmas trees in women’s earrings, Santas in used car lots! And the endless crooning of ‘White Christmas’ on Muzak, stirring up a frenzy of longing for that idyllic family moment which never came. It seemed not so much a festival as a parody of it.

How different the Indian holidays were! During the Festival of Lights, we lit clay oil lamps and put them on doorsteps and windowsills. We sprinkled the courtyard and covered it with rangoli designs made of colored rice powder. We visited the neighbors to eat Diwali treats and lit firecrackers at night. But despite the social events, Diwali remained a deeply personal festival with each day reserved for a special familial relationship. On Bhaubij, brothers traveled hundreds of miles to see their sisters. On Padva, fathers blessed their daughters. Families were neither happy nor unhappy, they simply were. And we accepted them as such, not as perfect or imperfect, but as real families, with the joys and sorrows and disappointments that accompanied them; there were no cathode ray tubes prescribing the recipe for an ideal family holiday. This is what distinguishes an American festival from festivals in other countries, I think.

New Year’s is a uniquely American phenomenon as well. The harbinger of a new Gregorian year meant little in most traditional societies, since the new lunar year began at the time of the harvest. In India, the full harvest moon was marked by celebrations of all-night singing and dancing. On the subsequent new moon, people lit bonfires and drank homemade bhang liquor. The New Year’s holiday was not an anticipation of things to come but a celebration of the ebb and flow of life itself.

The end of a year for so many people in America means another year of not finding the perfect romance or the perfect career. New Year’s resolutions bring with them the bittersweet taste of promises unkept, desires unquenched, longings unfulfilled. The anticipation of Christmas and New Years’s is worked up to such a feverish pitch that reality always turns out to be anti-climactic.

It is not too late to turn the American holidays into a joyous celebration of the seasons. Why not take a deep breath and make a New Year’s resolution to not visit the shopping malls next Christmas, but to take the children instead to watch the whales, or let them saunter among the live Christmas trees in the forest rather than the dead ones on the tube? Alan Greenspan might complain of it as being a recipe for a grand old recession, but it might be worth it just to get in touch with ourselves as creatures of the earth and its everlasting seasons.

San Leandro resident Santa Sarvate came to the United States from Nagpur, India, in 1976 to attend graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. She is a senior policy analyst for the Public Utilities Commission and a freelance writer.

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