76813605faa56c9121a7c3aaa4bb9dc6-2At a conference, “Clash or Consensus,” held in Washington D.C. in 2003 and sponsored by the Global Fund for Women and the Women’s Learning Partnership, I met Zainab Bangura, chair and co-founder of the Movement for Progress, a political party in Sierra Leone. When asked how it was to be a Muslim in her country, she replied: “Muslims and Christians are so integrated through marriage and in other ways that in Sierra Leone we call Christmas Christmus.”

Her comment transported me back to my youth in Bombay where we celebrated “Christmus” in a predominantly Hindu India. My Muslim mother attended a convent school and loved going to mass on Christmas Eve. Our ugly green plastic tree was strung with multicolored, electric fruit bulbs until one year when I conspired with my young and foolish maternal uncle to persuade my young, but slightly wiser, mother to let me light the tree with birthday candles—the “real thing.” Against her protestations, we lit the candles, and in a flash the tree burst into a burning inferno! Doused with buckets of water, the fire was extinguished, and passed lightly into memory.

No more burning trees! These were replaced by the highest hanging bare branches that my mother spotted driving down the road in her old rattletrap Vauxhall. In the absence of traditional Christmas trees, she would cajole a gardener to climb a tree and trim bare limbs that she fancied. We both loved this togetherness-in-naughtiness ritual: stealing branches beyond our reach and bringing them home to sculpt, shape, and infuse our home with the spirit of Christmas. Each year my mother conjured up new ideas for ornaments, including Christmas cards and beautiful bows made from ribbons of rich Indian textiles. It was always a surprise.

I brought our hybrid Christmus traditions to the first year of my marriage. We were starving graduate students in Palo Alto, and my cost-conscious American husband didn’t think we should splurge on a tree. Christmas without a tree seemed unfathomable to me, particularly in the United States. Determined to create a festive spirit for “his holiday,” I emulated my ever-resourceful Muslim mother, an early devotee of East-West fusion. I cut wintry branches from the sumptuous selections on the Stanford campus and whipped out all my glass bangles and gaudy jewelry to hang on the naked branches of the make-do tree. My silver chastity belt, usually slung low across my sari-draped hips, dangling mirror-work earrings, toe rings, anklets, all dressed our first tree.

But Christmus didn’t always translate well for American-born children. My best-planned but worst-received Christmas was celebrated with our 4-year-old son on a December visit to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. I was excited about doing an “Indian” Christmas for my bicultural child. From the bazaars of Jaisalmer and Jaipur, 11th-century desert towns in Rajasthan, my husband and I picked up miniature silver figurines for Riaz—a camel, an elephant, a lion, a precious Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bull), and horses in different sizes. I thought these little personable creatures would be perfect gifts on the heels of seeing live tigers and elephants in the wild at the Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary. Merrily decorating freshly cut branches and simulating snow with toilet paper after I put Riaz to bed, I had high aspirations for an unforgettable Christmas. Wrong!

For our son, who was used to freshly cut Christmas trees in San Francisco and had grown up with images of Santa coming down the chimney to munch on cookies and milk, this improvised Christmas in Bharatpur paled in comparison. Dissolving into tears, Riaz wailed, “Santa forgot about me, his reindeers couldn’t find Bharatpur …” I tried to reassure him. “How could Santa not find Bharatpur? It is next to the Taj, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”

In the following years Christmus in San Francisco became more Americanized. We cut trees, bought trees, and hauled trees from the woods. Christmas in the warm glow of a cozy fire with family, and friends who became family, are now fond memories. Each year, the tree had a new theme, a new touch of ethnic whimsy: silver, lacquer, and glass bangles one year, and in another year, paper cones in jewel tones inspired by roadside peanut vendors of India.

As the children got older, turf and territory had to be negotiated. My favorite lacy pines and choice “Charlie Brown selections” were replaced with immaculately shaped dense firs bought at Christmas tree lots. Ethnic beads and silver anklets were combined with traditional American ornaments because the kids wanted to blend in and not “be different.” Bollywood baubles were balanced out: our tree had to more closely resemble their friends’ trees.

Yet, an Indian-American Christmus tradition continues in our home. The first generation imports as much of the old country as it can. The next generation picks and chooses. Together, we create our multicultural, intergenerational fusion exemplified by tandoori turkey. A colorful sari covers the base of the tree; Indian jewelry and American ornaments adorn it; cumin and coriander aromas waft through the house as everybody stands by to baste and taste the distinctive turkey.

In a wounded world focused on the clash of cultures, Christmus symbolizes peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Sierra Leone, Muslims and Hindus in India, Americans and Indians in the United States. Christmus gives me hope.

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