Longing to Join in Christmas

By Nitya Venkataraman, a digital media producer at ABC news (THE WASHINGTON POST, 25/12/06):

Christmas is the season when you are most likely to find yourself on a street of beautiful homes with twinkling lights, warm fireplaces and happy families outfitted in festive holiday sweaters, only to be filled with a yearning to possess not just the house but the lifestyle inside.

For my whole Indian American childhood in the early 1980s, I wanted a Christmas tree that way. And it wasn't for the presents. It was for the lifestyle.

I wanted the Santa Claus, I wanted the holly wreath and I wanted the jolly elves who toiled in a workshop all year long. I wanted the sleigh bell-wearing reindeer on my roof. I wanted the colorful stockings hung by the chimney. And I wanted the jolly fat man to wiggle down our (nonexistent) chimney before he ho-ho-hoed his way across the night sky in a triumphant journey back to the North Pole.

From the warmth of my Hindu home, I always longed for that good old Christian magic -- and not a holiday like Christmas but Christmas itself. I wanted to belong to the classroom party hosted by homeroom mothers in Santa hats, to know the words to the holiday songs that everyone knew, to feel the evergreen anticipation that never faded or fell from branches needle by needle.

My immigrant father, who'd recently come to America as a University of California grad student, was a man of little sympathy and extra principle when it came to the wants and woes of my childhood.

Santa isn't real, he explained. And besides, we're not Christian. We're Hindu. If we celebrated Christmas, I would get you Christmas presents. But you can't allow yourself to get caught up in materialism just because department stores try to sell you an idea that ultimately benefits them. Show some pride.

His pride argument was a precursor. It showed up a few years later when I wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid and after that when I asked for a Nintendo.

My mother always understood my need for belonging without explanation. Like a Third World Christmas angel with a sparkling diamond nose ring, she bought me presents every year until I was old enough not to need them to defend my holiday humanity.

She'd tuck them deep into a corner of a closet my father never found, and she'd sign the gift tags "Love, Santa" in perfect penmanship. After all, it was my mother, never my father, who stood on the sidelines of the playground where I tried to defend my cultural differences, often met by horrified gasps of "How do you not celebrate Christmas?"

Of course, as I look back on the heaps of presents we got for Hindu holidays throughout the year, my father did have a point. But in that version of "A Christmas Carol," he played a modern-day immigrant-edition Ebenezer Scrooge to my ever-earnest, emotionally limping Tiny Tim.

Plus, I was 4. I was one of Santa's truest believers. All I wanted was a tree.

Then one day a miracle happened.

My father had to work late in the lab, and a local den mother who looked after the Indian graduate students showed up unexpectedly on our doorstep. She was slight and distinguished by the scent of Oil of Olay and fried mustard seeds that followed her. Dark-skinned and wiry-haired, she wore cotton saris everywhere and talked to me in loud Tamil, as if she was afraid I would forget the language.

She was the last person I would have expected to be standing at our door clutching a five-foot-tall Christmas tree and shopping bags filled with tinsel, lights and ornaments.

"Nitya, hurry up!" she whispered as I stood there, open-mouthed and filled with the kind of joy usually reserved for Christmas morning.

The tree took up half of our tiny apartment. And, although it never quite went with the bronze Ganesha statue or the painting of a bare-chested, flute-toting Krishna, its majestic, scented silence spoke of glittering magic and twinkling dreams more powerful than even the most principled nonbeliever.

My father saw it, bah-ed, humbug-ed and, in protest of the tree, made me cry on Dec. 24 by eating all the foil-wrapped chocolate I'd hung for Santa to see.

Part of me lives forever in the irony and innocence of that season, when a skinny brown woman in a cotton sari had the courage to defy my father to give me everything a fat white man in a red suit could not.