Christmas - Walking the Line Between Two Cultures
December 24th, 2009 by Erin Donaghue Source: www.gazette.net
To tree or not to tree? It's only one of the many dilemmas county Sikhs are faced with around the holiday season. And for followers of the faith, there seems to be just as many approaches to melding their own traditions with the Santas, reindeer, presents and elves that are pervasive in the communities in which they live.
For Sikh families in the county, many of whom worship at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in North Potomac, navigating the holiday season often means celebrating different traditions from multiple cultures — though no one family navigates the cultural divide in quite the same way.
"In the beginning it was like, ‘OK, when in Rome,'" said Burtonsville resident Gagan Narang. Born in India, Narang worships with her family at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation. Though the family doesn't celebrate Christmas, Narang said that she used to put up a Christmas tree when her children — now 20, 18 and 15 — were young. "It's all the marketing," she added. "There's a lot of pressure on the kids and they want presents, so it's easy to get swayed."
Now that her children are older and have learned more about their cultural heritage, she said, a bit of the pressure has been alleviated. For now, the Christmas tree is sitting in her basement. But she still enjoys giving small gifts around the holidays and attending Christmas parties at the homes of her Christian friends. "Time is too short — why not take every excuse to celebrate?" she said.
The Sikh religion is based on the belief in one God and a strong adherence to equality for all men and women. Sikhs follow the teachings of 10 spiritual teachers, or gurus, who lived from 1469 to 1708. Many Sikh men and women carry the same last name — Singh for men, and Kaur for women — because when the religion was founded in India last names were tell-tale signs of the caste to which a person belonged. Sikhs are known for keeping long hair, and men wear turbans and boys wear head coverings known as patkas.
Sikhs do have several celebrations around this time of year, most notably the birthday celebration of the first guru, Guru Nanak Dev, which fell on Nov. 2 this year. Sikhs will also celebrate the birthday of the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, on Jan. 5. While the celebrations involve singing, reading of the sacred scripture, processions and the sharing of sweets, there isn't too much emphasis on the gift-giving that's typical of Christmas, Narang said.
Some county families celebrate Guru Nanak Dev's birthday and go on to partake in Christmas traditions around the holidays. Harminder Kaur, a Potomac resident, says she puts up a Christmas tree with her children, 9, 15 and 19. "It's just about holiday cheer, and it's nice to have lights in the house," Kaur said. "We don't attach any religious significance to it, and I don't have mistletoe and all that."
Kaur's son, Vikram Mangat, a sophomore at Winston Churchill High School, said that the family tries to give back to those in need around the holidays. They also celebrate with Christian friends, he said. "We go to their house and we eat dinner and show our respect toward their celebration," he said.
Not all county Sikhs, however, put up a Christmas tree around the holidays. "Christmas has a lot of religious meaning, and that's not the religion that we follow," said North Potomac resident Ravi Singh. However, he said his family strings lights on his home to celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak Dev in November, and leaves the lights on until the holiday marking Guru Gobind Singh's birthday in January.
When walking the line between two cultures, there isn't always a clear-cut solution, many say. As the first generation in her family to immigrate to the United States, Narang said she can't fall back on advice from her parents on how to meld holiday traditions. "We are making our mistakes and hopefully doing a few things right in the process," Narang said. "I'm hoping when my kids are all grown up, they'll know what to do.