Come this time of the year, as the days get shorter and nights colder, thankfully expectation of the coming festivals brings a sense of warmth and joy to all our hearts. We are Sikhs from that far away land, India and my wife and I have spent more summers, and winters, there than here in the US. We have been fortunate, during these last twenty plus years that we have been here, to have been made a part of several celebrations by our friends and neighbors.
I cannot ever forget my first Thanksgiving. I was then living the roving life of a management consultant – on assignment in Rochester, NY. The consulting firm that I worked for allowed a day off on Thanksgiving but expected us to work the Friday and if possible Saturday to make up for the lost billing. My client asked me about my plans for the holiday and I jokingly said I could work on the project – did I not love my work so much!
When my client joined me for breakfast at the hotel Thanksgiving morning, something that he had always done, he said, ‘My wife and I would like you to join us for the holiday dinner – can I come and get you later to take you home?’ Great, yes, thank you. It was a wonderful late afternoon dinner – he, his wife, family and friends were all so gracious and welcoming. My first Thanksgiving left me thankful for their having introduced me to this lovely tradition and to make me a part of their warm and friendly gathering.
In the intervening years we developed friendships with several of our neighbors and others with whom we had the opportunity to come in some sort of continuing contact. We received hospitality and invited them to join us for social meals and on festive occasions – gatherings that were always so full of warmth, caring and sharing as if we had found family away from family.
Yet every time we get into the holiday season I cannot help thinking, somewhat nostalgically, about the way we used to celebrate festivals around this time when I was growing up. The fun used to begin with Diwali when the house was lit up with candles and was overflowing with mithhai, those delectable sweet goodies that we all loved. Diwali heralds the start of winter in the culture I come from. The nip in the air and illuminations somehow seemed to go together.
Two weeks later, we would again light up homes celebrating the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founding Guru of Sikhs. We would all go to the Gurdwara, Sikh house of worship, for joining the prayer services. Listening to the kirtan, the spiritual music so central to Sikh worship, by the best exponents of this tradition, was always so inspiring and peace inducing. In between, we would go to help as volunteers or partake of langar and then rejoin the congregation.
The service over, we would, as a family, take a vantage position to watch the start of nagar kirtan, the religious procession, that would meander its way through city streets before it returned to the Gurdwara. This was always a spectacle with hymn singing groups, school bands, gatka groups displaying their skills of Sikh martial arts, decked up floats, the best at the end carrying the holy Sikh scripture like a mobile sanctum sanctorum. And not to miss, stalls all along the way offering food and snacks to by standers and passersby.
Later in the evening we would light up candles, starting with our little home chapel, and then decorating the premises including the parapets, the pathways, the windows and doors. All of us joined in doing this – we felt it was sort of offering our humble respect to the divine Guru. And again, we would some time go back to the Gurdwara to watch the fireworks display and then stay on to listen to kirtan darbar – an extended exposition of spiritual music or a kavi sammelan – a poetic symposium finishing around mid night.
So the festivals went. We liked joining in because it was so celebratory and unbeknown to us we were learning some little bits about our religious life. The prayer and joyousness were so intermingled – woven together in a delicate web that kept us interested, engaged and involved or at least it seemed so.
Celebration of Festivals is not quite the same in our chosen new abode. We have a Gurdwara in Central Pennsylvania but that is forty five miles from where we live – a vast improvement over our earlier years in CT when we used to drive ninety nine miles, one way, to Gurdwara in Milford, MASS. There are several other constraints that our new and dispersed community has to cope with. Our celebrations at the Gurdwara sort of encapsulate most of what tradition has handed down but have to evolve quite a bit to recapture the vibrancy and spontaneity that characterizes Sikh festivities.
What we do at homes can be quite varied. Some of us may have elaborate celebrations while some may not have the will, ability or resources. Sikhs are gregarious, love to share and be socially engaged. In the post Sep. 11 environment however they are struggling to correct the mistaken identity perceptions linking them to Bin Laden because of turbans they wear as part of religious observance. They know that the festivals provide a reason to get together with not only family, co-believers and friends but also with the larger community but some of them may be loathe to take on more visible roles or even draw attention by lighting up homes when others around do not. I observed similar discretion practiced by Christians in Pakistan for fear of being marked for attack.
Things have changed but memories romanticizing the festivities in the days gone by linger on. Today we hear all traditions complaining of alienation, dwindling attendance in the pews and growing sense of weariness that seems to surround all our lives. I do wonder what the young will really think of these festivals looking back when they are my age. I am tempted to wager though that, if anything it will be some similar sense of nostalgia!
[A version of this Article was published in Patriot News, Harrisburg, PA, on Thanksgiving, 2010]