When it comes to the festive season, we know that traditions matter. Christmas traditions present storybook images of a spruce covered in tinsel, fairy lights towering over a pile of presents and Christmas carols everywhere we go. And yet, sometimes the reality is far from it but equally as beautiful. For each of us, our traditions are inherent to our cultural upbringing and the communities we belong to.
Here in Australia, the “most wonderful time of the year” is a far cry from winter wonderlands, or fire-roasted chestnuts; however, there are certain connections to the familial focus many of us share in our own unique ways
As we draw towards the time of year of colourful light displays, Christmas cake and lots of sun, we turn to our South Asian community in Australia to find out what a culturally fused Christmas looks like for them in their households.
Stuthi, a South Indian creative residing in Brisbane, tells of her memories of Christmas. “In New Delhi, the apartment that we lived in had people from all faiths and religions…one of my most vivid memories is of my mother making cakes in an old oven, the fragrance of which would fill the entire apartment, and stairwell…exchanging cakes made lovingly in different homes per family recipes, was a tradition that my parents, neighbours and family observed religiously."
Like many South Asians, food is a staple that brings family together, and often goes beyond conversation around a dinner table to forging friendships and community bonds that last a lifetime. For others, Christmas remains a time to reflect and remember the people that make the season special, creating new traditions to connect with loved ones..
Divya, a veterinarian studying in Brisbane, shares that “growing up in India for the latter half of my childhood opened my eyes to a different kind of Christmas that I am so grateful for…it gave me the opportunity to understand where the beautiful holiday stemmed from, and to try and remain true to its roots.”
In a sense, the holiday ushers in the value of holding virtues of generosity, benevolence and hospitality, in a way in which both those within society can extend the gift of faith and kindness to others.
Tia, a lawyer based in Sydney, also adds that celebrations often extend beyond the cultural community to circles of friends and places of occupation. “My mother often wanted to make sure we learned about other cultures, and also felt included at school with friends, so we used to celebrate in our own little way."
For a historical holiday to cross cultural, familial, even religious beliefs and boundaries, is certainly a testament to how communities are able to celebrate in their own unique ways,using their own customs, too.
Rupa, a bicultural storyteller and founder living in Sydney, retells of her upbringing in Chennai and her influences from close friends. “I spent my childhood in Chennai, within a very conservative society; yet I find it remarkable when I reflect on my views about tolerance and compassion that where nurtured there…by religious affiliation, I’m labelled a Hindu, from a very pious Brahmin household, but I think well into my tweens, I remember celebrating Christmas at my neighbours’ house."
Despite living between cultural distinctions and different upbringings, many South Asians resonate with the holiday and are able to appropriate it in a special way that brings meaning to them and the community in which they live.
Nish, a government worker serving in Canberra, mentions that for her, Christmas is a time for family. Growing up Buddhist, marrying a Muslim, but adopting the Christmas tradition as a familiar pastime. “I remember attending midnight mass with Catholic friends…although I didn’t have many Sri Lankan friends within the community, I always took the time to celebrate, and I still continue to do so to this day."
For many South Asians growing up across different countries, the celebration of the season also seems to change over time, with many growing up with a curiosity to find out more about Christmas and to celebrate it with others.
Saadia, a Pakistani researcher staying in Perth, mentions that, coming from a monolithic Muslim culture overseas, she only started celebrating Christmas once she moved to Australia. “I have always been fascinated by the vibe and ambience of Christmas…when I moved to Australia, it gave me a first-hand opportunity to soak in that vibe…interestingly, it was summer here, which is a polar opposite to my perception of the winter wonderland covered with snow…December is still my favourite month of the year, due to Christmas."
As a result, South Asians from all backgrounds, religions, and walks of life are able to come around this central celebration of the Christian calendar, and, making it their own, together celebrate their very own brown Christmas.
Molina, a business advisor based in Melbourne, tells of her upbringing and celebrations in her household during Christmas time. “I went to an Anglo-Indian school…though we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we used to decorate some random tree in the house…I still celebrate Christmas, but it’s different now. My husband was born in Australia, and my daughter, though born in India, grew up in Australia, so Christmas in Australia is usually a Christmas lunch with my husband’s family.”
The unique celebrations and perspectives of the South Asian diaspora in Australia brings new flavours to the typical festivities seen at this time of year. Across the globe, families ring in the festive season with their own traditions and trimmings.
From a Christian perspective, I always found solace in the fact that Christmas has been celebrated for thousands of years, yet the focus always remains on the Hope of the World, that brings light to those who received the truth of the season.
Celebrating in church halls, to living room tables, it is the message that continues to ring true within cultures and communities across the world, and right here in Australia, wherever people choose to come together.
To many more Christmas celebrations to come, may we remember the special season in our community.
Joseph is a Brisbane-based writer. He is a Manager at ReachAcross, a Multicultural Ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation of Australia, a Board member of Australian Refugee and Migrant Care Services, and is nominated as Young Community Achiever of the Year in the India Australia Business and Community Awards 2020. Joseph was SAARI's first official writer, and is a passionate changemaker.