As an ethnically Chinese Roman Catholic growing up in Singapore, Onam should never have been a festival I marked, much less celebrated.
But for many Indian-Singaporeans, Onam, a cross-faith festival that originated in the Indian state of Kerala, is a highlight of the year. And as a teenager, I was fortunate enough to have an Indian-Singaporean schoolmate invite me into her home to mark it with her family. Over the feast that her mother had laid out, Raadthie gamely explained the backstory of the harvest festival to me, involving the return of the divine King Mahabali to Kerala.
I’ve been thinking about that meal in recent weeks, as I’ve watched the venom spewed in the United States, where I now live, over the alleged “War on Christmas” — that’s the name Americans give to their internecine battle over wishing people “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy holidays” or other similarly inclusive phrases. It’s a fight that has metastasized to reach the highest levels of politics.
President Barack Obama has gotten some heat on social media for sending out a holiday — as opposed to Christmas — card again this year. At a victory rally in Wisconsin this month, Donald Trump stood in front of a line of Christmas trees and pointedly said, “When I started 18 months ago, I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here some day and we are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. Merry Christmas. So, Merry Christmas everyone. Happy New Year, but Merry Christmas.” The audience, primed by decades of right-wing media, reacted in ecstasy.
Such myopic maelstroms rage on in the United States, ever more violently, especially at the time of year when multiple winter holidays — Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and, yes, Christmas — are taking place. Which is why the aspect of my Onam experience that seems most relevant at such moments isn’t what our motley group of Chinese- and Indian-Singaporeans (and one Eurasian) ate or did at the celebration — it’s the fact that it was so wholly unremarkable and just plain natural that we all got together to celebrate in the first place.
Singapore is a multiethnic country where it was understood that divisiveness had no place in any conversation or at any dinner table. Growing up, I was taught that all holidays were equal. I was brought up to respect them all — which, at the very least, included offering well wishes to my friends who celebrated them, regardless of our religious or ethnic differences. And if we were lucky, we’d be invited over to toast that holiday — and eat.
The official public holidays listed by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower include Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali (or Diwali), the Muslim Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji, Good Friday, and the Buddhist Vesak Day, among others. That reflects Singapore’s own eclectic heritage, mixing Chinese, Malay, and Indian with an overlay of British colonial culture. And once those holidays rolled around, we not only looked forward to having those days off — we also wished our Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist friends well, even if we didn’t share the same faith. At my family’s Chinese New Year celebrations, it was always perfectly natural for our Hindu or Muslim friends and colleagues to pop by for a cup of tea and a bite to eat.
Out of all of these, Christmas is the holiday celebrated with the most immense gusto — albeit in a largely secular way outside of Christian circles. My friends of all religions and ethnicities in Singapore gather for Christmas dinners and brunches, exchanging presents and often even donning festive colors and regalia. (I’m sure if the tropical temperatures were more cooperative, ugly Christmas sweaters might even make an appearance.) Singapore’s Orchard Road becomes an explosion of tinsel and chintzy lights as each mall competes to see which can put up the most bombastic Christmas displays — many of which often drape their facades.
My childhood friend Joanne Balaraj recently wrote an email to me recalling the numerous holiday meals of all sorts she has always had in Singapore. “The friends’ houses we visited and the family meals we partook of on their religious holidays. My mother will always be famous among my friends for her sainted biryani, which was a staple on the dinner table at Christmas,” she wrote. “This is what it means to be Singaporean. What made each of us comprises part of a culture that made all of us.”
My Malay-Singaporean friend Amelia Abdullahsani noted recently that although she is Muslim, she not only sends out Christmas and holiday cards every year in December, but also that once the tinseled trees start appearing, she finds herself wishing everyone who crosses her path a Merry Christmas. “I’ve been saying ‘Merry Christmas’ my whole life,” she said. “It just rolls off my tongue like ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘Good afternoon,’ like the past couple weeks when I’m at the store or a restaurant. When I leave, I say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Goodbye.’ I have no clue if the person celebrates Christmas or not — it’s just something I say as a greeting.”
Growing up, I often thought that the feasting, gift giving, and the rivers of sparkling lights that Singapore’s shopping streets become at this time of year were all a bit too much. I bristled at how it all made Christmas feel just a little too commercial. But now, after being in the United States and seeing the longtime bitterness over the simple act of holiday well-wishing, I see that it’s not.
Commercial or food-centric or not, the important point was that we all came together — and not just for Christmas but for Chinese New Year and Deepavali and everything in between. These festivals for us — regardless of religion or race — were about coming together to break bread and celebrate one another’s different cultures and understand them, after all. And it’s clearer to me now more than ever that we were the better for it — for us seeing the blurred lines of all our holidays and embracing them as one. I only wish my adopted country could see this, too.
Photo credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Source: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Foreign Policy Magazine