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It was 7 am on a rainy winter morning in California. My dad had forgotten to buy milk the previous night. Fearing my mother’s wrath, he rushed to the grocery store. He approached those all-to-familiar automatic doors, did his a jig to activate the sensors, but the doors wouldn’t open. He finally realized that the store was closed.
Christmas morning. The only day of the year that American capitalism would pause in the name of religion. Christmas was something my family never paid much attention to. The milk that my dad needed wasn’t for Santa Claus, it was for my mom’s famous filter coffee.
Growing up in America meant embracing some of the traditions that were foreign to my parents. When I was little, my mom hosted a Christmas party and enticed a family friend to dress up as Santa Claus. She invited the kids of her immigrant friends, excited to give us all an American Christmas. As the toddlers lined up to sit on Santa’s lap, we started crying when we heard his Indian accent.
“Santa doesn’t talk like that, Amma!” I exclaimed. All her efforts were sadly in vain.
The next year she tried a different tactic. She stuck a crumpled $5 bill in a stocking that we had decorated at my elementary school. The greedy 8-year old me had written up a list for “Santa Claus,” and was sorely disappointed that none of my asks were met.
“You’re Santa aren’t you?” I asked my mom. She sheepishly nodded her head.
In the years since then, Christmas became a festivity to appreciate. We would decorate a tree every year, put up Christmas lights, and give small gifts to our neighbors. It was not about the day itself, but about the season of joy and giving.
After I went to college, this holiday became the only time I would see cherished friends and family. It was the only time the world would shut down because it had to, almost forcing me to consider what truly meant the most to me. It became a time of considering my privilege, my life’s luxuries, and the wealth of good people surrounding me.
We are often overwhelmed with our rituals for Thanksgiving, Navaratri, and Diwali. Christmas, for me, has become a time of still, a time to spend with the people that matter.
As I think back to all of the grocery stores, malls, and movie theaters that turned us away because we forgot that it was December 25th, I wish I could tell my kid self that those were the moments that mattered. Years later, I come home to a world that looks nothing like the one I grew up in: people are gone, people have changed, I’ve left home, I’ve changed.
Traditions bring about a semblance of constancy, a yardstick by which we can measure how much has stayed the same. But the absence of custom brings deep reflection. Year by year, I don’t spend Christmas with Indian Santa Claus. We don’t put up lights anymore. I spend it with whomever is present in my life.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that life is fleeing. We can’t always count on traditions to look back on, largely because nothing is really constant. If I could go back and tell my kid self something, it would be to savor the “non-traditions.” Those mundane moments, though not recurring, are our reality.
Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.