True Christmas

What Do The Holidays Mean To You?

In a culture where Christmas is said to come earlier each year, what is it like to be from a different background where the holiday is not observed?

Eisha Nathwani is an active member of the Hindu community in Des Moines and Kinesiology major at Grand View University.

“The closest thing we have to Christmas would probably be Diwali which we just had in October,” Nathwani said.

Photos By Chloe Pacha

The purpose of the Hindu holidays such as Diwali and Holi are for you to enjoy yourself and to “be loud. “Nathwani describes being loud as not only referring to the sound made, but the intensity of the passion for the people around you.

“Many families for Diwali will spend days making and eating tons of food,” said Nathwani.

Diwali is a major holiday held over five days to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Nathwani said that she loves holidays like Diwali because it gives her an opportunity to be with people and have a fun and lively time.

“The celebrations really help to bring people together,” Nathwani said.

Hindu celebrations include events such as Navathri (Nine Nights), Holi (Holy days) and Krishna Janmashtami (a two-day festival celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna).
Hinduism, as Nathwani describes, is not so much about the observance of holidays and ways of living as it is about enjoying life and respecting it.

“There are people in our community who dress up and go to church for Christmas,” Nathwani said. “Our family usually decides to go on a trip or just spend time together as a family.”

The Christmas season means something different for everyone and connects with people in their own way. Nathwani said that the decorations bring her much happiness, but that they also don’t mean much to her, unlike the feelings Christmas decor may spark for others.

Dr. Xiang Ma, an adjunct professor in the GV science department, views Christmas in a different light.
Ma and his wife are atheists, though they make it a point to celebrate Christmas for their kids.

“Although we don’t believe in God, we treat Christmas as a holiday; we buy gifts, decorate a tree and just anything we can to make a holiday flavor,” Ma said.

As time has gone on, Ma has noticed himself participating more in Christmas activities. When Ma first arrived in the United States as a student at Idaho State University, the Christmas season seemed more like down time, being that there wasnt much going on around the college town. Although lights could be seen decorating the houses around the area, little else was done in observation of the holiday.

“Back in Indiana and Idaho, this made the holidays not really mean anything to us,” Ma said. “But after we moved here, we started to see more going on and people celebrating together.”

Ma said that when he was young, the Chinese New Year was a time where everyone would get together.

“In China our biggest holiday is the fifteen-day Spring Festival also called the New Year,” said Ma. “The Chinese New Year acts as a celebration of the year that has ended and the new year that is beginning.”

Ma remembers getting up to go over to the neighbor’s houses and join with them and having a wonderful time celebrating together. Ma said the time of the festival was important to him personally because it allowed him to spend time with people he cared about.

After the fifteen days of the festival have passed, the celebration is ended with a special food that Ma said is called “Tangyuan” – in English: Sweet Rice Balls.
Ma said Tangyuan bears a special symbolism in the festival that represents family togetherness.

Ma and his wife were able to observe the Chinese New Year until their graduation from university, but have found it to be more difficult in the years that followed.

Christmas for Ma and his family is a time where there is much more to do. This makes introducing their kids to different opportunities much easier. “If there is a parade or a party, we’ll try to bring our kids to it, because it gives us a time to be with people,” Ma said “there are a lot of things that happen during the season, so there’s a lot for us to do.”

Ma said the amount of celebration that is done makes him feel happy, but it also makes him feel a bit disappointed that it is difficult to celebrate his culture.

For Des Moines City Councilman, Jason Mandelbaum, Christmas acted as a time where it was difficult to avoid the full weight of reality.

Mandelbaum was born into a Jewish family and practices Reformed Judaism at the same temple that his grandfather helped found, Temple B’nai Jeshurun.

While growing up, the Christmas season reminded Mandelbaum that he was different from his peers. Being the only Jewish student in his classes, he said he would often be singled-out or be asked to help educate the class on his faith and the holidays observed. There were several aspects of Judaism that Mandlebaum had to explain to his classmates.

“There’s a whole different set of holidays and events that are observed,” said Mandelbaum. “The most holy days are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shabbat and Hanukkah.”

His faith practices are shaped by the denomination of Judaism being observed at a temple. Mandelbaum said his temple falls under what is understood as Reformed Judaism. Mandelbaum said he grew up celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah each year around the same time as Christmas. But due to the Jewish faith being oriented around a lunar calendar, the holiday will occur closer to Thanksgiving some years.

Although Mandelbaum wants his children to be immersed in the American culture, he does not believe that Christmas should be the most prominent holiday either.

“It’s really about the level of observation and the strictness with which you adhere to specific biblical interpretation,” said Mandelbaum. “Me and my wife are raising our kids Jewish, but we’re doing so less strict than how it was for me.”

Mandelbaum said that his wife grew up celebrating a very “secular Christmas”, on some years they will go to her parents for dinner and presents. He said he hopes this helps his kids feel more a part of the common culture.

Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration observed to remember a time when the Jews were kicked out of the Holy Temple during a war.

“The people were down to having only enough oil for a single day, but the oil instead burned for eight days to keep the eternal flame burning,” Mandelbaum said.

The eight candles on the menorah act to represent these days.

“On years where Hanukkah didn’t overlap with Christmas, our family would just get the time off and hang out at home,” Mandelbaum said.

Although during the rest of the year it wasn’t anywhere near top of mind, he said that the Christmas season almost forced itself to be front and center.

“There was even to some degree a level of discomfort having to see Christmas trees everywhere and singing Christmas songs in school,” Mandelbaum said.

Mandelbaum said he believes this experience in growing up helped shape who he is today as someone who is more cognizant that others might be going through a similar situation.
“It’s not just those who are Jewish.” Mandelbaum said “There are people of many beliefs who are mis-represented around the U.S. The number is larger than it was when I was growing up, but this should only act to help spur us to make an inclusive society that works for everyone.”

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