When my mom was 12 years old, she immigrated to Canada from Punjab, India. She lived with her father and four siblings in Victoria, British Columbia until she got married. My mom acquired many of her Christmas celebrations as a Canadian Sikh during this phase of her life.
Around the age of 16, my mom had someone incredibly special come into her life, her stepmother, Shirley.
Shirley was Indigenous, part of the Cree tribe and followed the Catholic religion. Everyone who knew her, adored her as she shared so much love with those around her. Shirley was a true gem of a human being, one of the kindest and warmest people we have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
She celebrated Christmas and brought her own family traditions into the Punjabi home she joined. Many years later, when my mom had me, she continued the same Christmas celebrations and traditions.
She told my dad all about the importance of the holidays – the tree, the gifts, the family coming together, the food, the photographs, and the home videos. Together, they made it all happen.
Every year, my siblings and I decorated a Christmas tree. My dad climbed the ladder and put up lights all around the house. We invited family over or made the trip to them. On Christmas Eve, we baked cookies and watched our favourite holiday movies (both Home Alone films are at the top of the list), and left out cookies and milk for Santa. In the morning, we woke up early, snuck downstairs and found a mountain of gifts under and around the tree.
We spent the entire morning opening gifts, laughing and just being completely happy. Then my mom would make cholay bhaturay for brunch (curried chickpeas with fried bread). The fresh and warm bhaturay were so irresistible that we continued to eat even when our stomachs were ready to burst. Since she cooked the cholay in a pressure cooker, they were perfectly soft, never too spicy, and were topped off with thin slices of red onion marinated in vinegar.
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The rest of the day we enjoyed all the new gifts we received and would marathon the Harry Potter movies. For dinner, my mom would make a feast: a full turkey dinner. The spread included homemade stuffing, oven-roasted veggies, creamed mushrooms and potatoes, fresh rolls with butter, mixed salads and rice pilaf. The dessert was chocolate fudge cake or ice cream. The five of us sat around the table, passing around dishes, smiling and savouring every bite, praising our mother for everything she blessed us with.
There were other times when we wouldn’t be at home for Christmas. We went to my mom’s siblings’ homes, where all the aunts and uncles and cousins got together and exchanged gifts. We ate lots of food, danced, and danced some more. Especially on New Year’s Eve, the kids stayed up after midnight. We loved dancing with the grown-ups to our favourite Punjabi folk music and celebrating life with every morsel of our beings.
Growing up, I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with this tradition. My mom had done such a great job with continuing with it every year. Other people outside of my family began to question it. They would ask, “oh you guys celebrate Christmas? I didn’t realize you were Catholic!” I would suddenly feel embarrassed and confused, and replied with, “well, we do celebrate Christmas, but we are Sikh.”
“How does that work?” they’d ask.
I didn’t really know how to answer at that time. I told them that my parents enjoyed decorating, getting into the spirit of giving and coming together during the holidays. They created so much magic and wonder with stories of Santa Claus. I tried to explain that there was nothing religious in our Christmas celebrations. We just simply loved Christmas!
My siblings and I attended a Catholic school from kindergarten until graduating high school. My parents didn’t want us to go to a public school. Luckily, we were accepted into a Catholic one, which at the time was not easy, as we were not baptised.
We attended mass at the local church with our classmates. Whenever it was time for communion, we crossed our arms over our chests so that the priest knew not to give us the host. He would bless us by making the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ash.
We learnt about the Catholic religion at school. We knew everything there is to know about the bible, the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, and more. So, with Christmas, we felt conflicted. As we got older, we questioned if it was right to be celebrated even though we were technically raised as Sikh.
I remember seeing an Instagram story of a family friend, a couple of years ago, around the holidays. He said something to the effect of, “sad to see so many brown people putting up trees and getting caught up in the capitalism of Christmas, rather than attending the Gurdwara.”
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I wanted to tell him, lovingly of course, that putting up a Christmas tree does not take away from being a Sikh or being South Asian. Being a parent now for over 10 years, I can see why my mother decided to bestow such a beautiful tradition upon us. Our parents raised us to respect all religions and cultures, which is something I have taught my own daughters too.
With my girls, I keep my parents’ traditions and those of my late Shirley Naniji, while creating a few new ones. As soon as December 1st hits, we start decorating the house. We bring out the tree, put on our favourite Christmas song playlists, and start the holiday movie marathons. Together, we write letters to Santa, take our yearly family photos, and print them onto cards that we send by mail. We come up with ideas about how to give back to our community and help those in need.
Every December morning, we anticipate what Elfie has been up to the night before, and the girls eat their daily chocolates from their calendars. We love to drive around the neighbourhood and check out all the beautiful lights that sparkle up the houses of the city. Also, after an afternoon of either shoveling the snow or building snow-people, we treat ourselves to hot chocolate with marshmallows while sitting by our (electric) fireplace. We make our rounds to all the family members in every city within our province, Windsor, Waterloo, Brampton, Orangeville, Guelph, and Mississauga. If we’re lucky, they come to us. But not even a snowstorm has stopped us from visiting family during the holidays!
[Read Related: Why I Celebrate Christmas as a Hindu]
Finally, on Christmas Eve, my daughters and I bake cookies. Just like I did with my siblings when we were kids, we eat them with milk while watching Christmas movies. We never forget to leave some out for Santa before going to sleep. In the morning, we wake up early, give each other hugs and kisses, and give thanks for the family we have, the home we live in and the love we share with each other. We wrap our arms around one another and then go crazy unwrapping all the gifts Santa left for us under our tree.
From my little family to yours, we wish you a magical holiday season and a very happy 2023!
Photo Courtesy: Taneet Grewal