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Celebrating American festivals


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Celebrating American festivals

-Jasbir Singh Sethi

Since I came to USA in 1968, I am thrilled with the festivals people celebrate here. Most of them are universal and appealing and it would be wrong to not celebrate them with enthusiasm.

Just recently we celebrated Halloween. My wife gives cash (change) to group after group of kids knocking at our door in fascinating costumes and the famous ring of “Trick or Treat.†It brings back memories when I was a kid. We would go every evening for about ten days, singing “sundar mundrea..†and collecting cash, snacks and wood for a big fire on the day of the festival. We would sit by the fire and tell stories, jokes, and listen to words of wisdom from the elderly. This was the festival of Lorhi. It brought all the neighbors, kids and adults in a wonderful get together. I have so many nostalgic sweet memories of those years. When we came to USA and experienced Halloween, the child in me was thrilled. Halloween is quite like Lohri, and the excitement on the faces of children is very contiguous.

In 1972 we moved to Houston, and in 1974 a heinous incident happened here. A financially strapped doctor gave cyanide laced candies to his two young children on Halloween, killing them to get insurance money to help him get out of his financial troubles. With such a tragic news fresh on their minds, parents hesitated to send their children out on Halloween. The year following this incident, Halloween was extremely quiet. Hardly a few kids came and we felt extremely sorry for them. A harmless fun filled tradition had been transformed into a nightmare.

We decided that we would not take the fun out of Halloween and instead give money to children who visit our house. It was a slight modification, to keep the fun party going. The news by word of mouth spread among the children of the neighborhood that we gave cash, and from there on we started getting maximum number of children even from outside our immediate neighbors. We even noticed cars pulling close to our house, kids storming the street up to our door and then rushing back to their parents waiting in the parked cars. We loved it and so did the children. We are active and innovative participants in this wonderful American tradition. Our neighbors appreciate it. We were no Khomeinis or Bin Ladens to them.

Three generations of an American family sharing Thanksgiving dinner.

Painting by Norman Rockwell

Thanksgiving is another wonderful American festival and a celebration. With the help of a few friends we started a tradition among us. On Thanksgiving we get together with potluck dinner, friends and family. Before starting the Thanksgiving Dinner we discuss with the children the beginning of this tradition. The main purpose of Thanksgiving is to remember God who gives us all the blessings we receive in our lives. We quote Gurbani “jae parsad chhati amrit khae, tis thakur ko rakh man maeâ€, and then do the Sikh ardas, thanking the Guru for his bounties and for the love of our friends and family.

In December it is Christmas. I once asked some of my Christian friends, how did the tradition of the Christmas Tree come about because where Jesus lived there were hardly any trees let alone coniferous trees, which are generally in very cold climate.

One Christian scholar informed me that the spread of Christianity to Scandinavia encountered a local custom. Being snowed in for better part of the year, and as a reminder of life, happiness, and hope people in that part of the world keep a green tree in a corner inside their homes. Since this tradition in no way compromised basic Christian tenets, it was adopted and the tree became the Christmas Tree.

Keeping a tree as a reminder of life, hope and Nature, in no way contradicts Sikh values. As we celebrate festivals in the holiday season, we could use this tree to remember the message of Gurbani and it will also be a constant reminder of our glorious history. We started setting up our tree. My daughter designed beautiful ornaments and decorations for it. At the top we placed a glittering, lighted EK ONKAR, with pictures of our Gurus, family, other decorations and sometimes scenes from Sikh history with a snowman at the bottom. Kids love it. They look forward to decorating the tree and after Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and the New Year, we take it down and store all the decorations for next year.

As an alternative to the New Year Eve drink parties, we have set up a tradition of welcoming the New Year with Ren Sabai Kirtan, which I think many Gurdwaras across the country are doing. I have noticed that the attendance of our youth at these kirtans is less. Let us put our heads together and come up with innovative solutions to help them understand that the best way to welcome the New Year is to remember Waheguru. The alternative should not be the choice.

Valentines Day is another wonderful day to welcome. It teaches us to love, and express it beautifully with flowers. I am reminded of the wonderful poetry of Bhai Vir Singh, and our progression of love from a human to God (jin prem keo tin hi prabh paeo). As an Urdu poet once said, advancing from Ishaq-e-majazi to Ishaq-e-Haqiqi.

We started celebrating Mother’s Day in our Gurdwara with a remembrance of all great mothers in Sikh history - Mata Tripta, Mata Khewee, Bibi Bhani and many more including the mother of Khalsa Mata Sahib Devan - and presenting these role models to the women, young girls, and the future mothers of our community.

Memorial Day is in the memory of all those who died for the nation. We honor our Sikh martyrs in our daily ardas. We should also honor those who died for this great nation, to which we now belong.

Labor Day is to honor “kirtiâ€. Guru Nanak’s preference of Bhai Laloo over Malik Bhagoo is a very clear message. We do say , but do we sincerely believe in it?

On Fourth of July is the Independence Day. Fourth of July was a big step forward. French Revolution had failed, the progress of democratic principles in England was very slow, and in Latin America many revolutions were crushed. Americans stood up for their rights and achieved their independence. There is a lot we can learn from the history of our country. I am not saying that USA is perfect, but it is the best that man with all his weaknesses of greed and pride has been able to create. I read a complete book written by the former Chief Justice of US Supereme Court, on the “Pursuit of Happiness†in our founding documents. I admire the tremendous courage of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. In fact, by signing this document they had signed their death warrant. If the revolution had failed, which was very possible, each one of them would have been hung from the nearest tree.

If nothing more, we can learn the great message of the separation of power, checks and balances, accountability for our actions, term limit for public offices, selecting people based on issues and not the family they come from, we would be taking a big step toward improving management of our Gurdwaras.

Whatever we do carries a meaning for the next generations. By flying the American Flag on appropriate occasions and celebrating these festivals enthusiastically and by linking them to our Sikh values and heritage, we are giving the next generations a message of harmony between these two cultures. We are building bridges and helping pick the good from both cultures: sanjh karejae gunna keri. It will give the community tremendous self-confidence in our interaction with our non-Sikh peers.

I learnt a quote from my eleven-year-old grand daughter in Phoenix. After the killing of Mr. Sodhi in the aftermath of September 11, the press was all over the Sikh community of Phoenix, and there came Harlean, my grand daughter, on the TV telling a reporter, “I am proud to be a Sikh and I am proud to be an American.â€


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