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Expressway: For immigrants traditions old and new

Brothers Ashwin, left, and Karthik Ramanathan celebrate Christmas

Brothers Ashwin, left, and Karthik Ramanathan celebrate Christmas at home in Oceanside in 1991. Photo Credit: Rohini Ramanathan

One day at a parent-student conference, my son's elementary school social studies teacher asked me whether he had converted to Judaism along with his grandmother.

"Not that I know of," I replied, and laughed.

This kid of mine was a prankster. Still, I wondered whether he was trying to fit in with others in Oceanside by telling his teacher such a fiction.

My husband and I are immigrants, and I consider ours an assimilated family. When my two sons were growing up, we celebrated almost all holidays. In fact, although we are from India and practice the Hindu faith, Christmas was our biggest secular holiday.

Our 6-foot fake tree, sporting several ornaments and lights and crowned with a star, overshadowed everything else in our living room. Under the tree, it was gifts galore, and each Christmas morning we never failed to videotape the kids ripping into them.

Even the major Hindu holiday, Diwali -- the festival of lights, which arrives this year on Thursday -- was just a speck in our gallery of annual celebrations.

Both of my sons went to more bar mitzvahs of classmates than they could count, and each collected a stack of yarmulkes. Of course, after a point, the bar mitzvahs ended, but Christmas continued in its glory. Christmas was also my father's birthday, and he was often with us for this holiday.

At ages 8 and 10, the boys went through their own Hindu "bar mitzvah" -- the sacred thread ceremony, which forged the boys' identity as bona fide members of their Brahmin caste.

When they were 11 and 13, during summer holidays, I took them on a five-week visit to India. We stayed in a rented bungalow in the heart of the city of Chennai, on the southeast coast. This was a perspective-changing experience. The boys listened to Bollywood music, stopped at some of the oldest Hindu temples in the world, visited the homes of loving relatives, and ate in restaurants serving exotic dishes like 2-foot crepes topped with coconut chutney and moringa stew. At one point, it seemed as if they were tempted to make India home.

Of course, home was Oceanside, and when they returned they showed off their Indian souvenirs to friends and even gave a couple of them thimble-sized granite statues of Ganesha, the god of wisdom and remover of obstacles. The friends built small shrines for their statues and, on the advice of my sons, prayed to them before school exams.

Soon the brothers reassimilated and for that Halloween we made a jack-o'-lantern. On Thanksgiving -- a vegetarian meal in keeping with our family's custom -- they binged on mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread and pecan pie. Between those two was Diwali, when in some Indian communities, sesame oil features prominently in one's morning bath. We also wear new clothes and enjoy a variety of sweets.

Unfortunately, Diwali in the United States is stripped of its grandeur because it is usually a working day, and the festival's main attraction, fireworks, is missing. Still, that year my older son declared, "From now on, Diwali should be our biggest holiday, not Christmas."

Since then, our Christmas celebration has been somewhat muted. However, a trained singer, I joined the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church choir in Rockville Centre, and on Christmas Eve, we belt out the most wonderful hymns.

My family has added to and subtracted from the traditions we brought with us to this country. We have adopted new customs and forged a different identity for ourselves, like millions of other immigrants.

Reader Rohini B. Ramanathan lives in Oceanside.

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