Holiday Magic, Indian Style

I spent my first Christmas and New Year away from home to get time for a research project. Though I missed my family greatly, I learned what Indian celebrations are all about!

At 21-years-old, I’ve been to 19 countries, almost as many as my age. Traveling has taught me more about myself and others than perhaps anything else.

I’ve been to where shrapnels are shot daily on the Gaza Strip of the Israel-Palestine border. I’ve been threatened by men with AK-47s near the Kenya-Somalia border. I’ve received marriage proposals and avoided countless sexual invitations. And I’ve grown so close to people worlds apart from me, all while knowing that I probably won’t see most of them again.

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Here I am with one of the sanitary officers from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) I interviewed for my research. He manages 25 waste collectors (trash picker-uppers) in the city.

But at the end of every day and trip, I’m left with 3 things: myself, God, and my family at home. I must love myself and realise that God never wavers in His love for me. And that my mom, dad, and brother support me wherever I am.

My family and I have never spent major holidays apart… until this year. But with me receiving generous funding for my senior thesis research in India, I ended up spending both Christmas and New Year’s away. Boy was it interesting!

 

In Hyderabad, India I learned that Christmas is not a big deal…

  • Many Indians don’t prioritize Christmas because they think it’s only a Christian holiday.

Want to feel strong Indian holiday vibes? I was told to be in the country during Diwali (festival of lights) or Holi (festival of colors) or even Pongal (South Indian harvest festival). That’s when the sales, music, and celebrations really happen!

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For those who don’t celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas, they can still savor these sweet treats! This is my dessert table from my Christmas brunch.

  • Christmas carols do not play on the radio.

This made me somewhat melancholy because I often spend my Decembers humming to every Christmas song I can. When I asked Hyderabadis which Christmas songs they know, the only sure tune they’d recall was Jingle Bells.

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My Christmas Eve church service hosted by Hope Unlimited Church. This was the only place where I sang Christmas carols this year!

 

  • Don’t count on “Christmas entertainment” to actually include holiday material.

I went to a comedy show called Stand Up Santas a couple days before Christmas, and surprise! None of the jokes had anything to do with Christmas. However, I did become the subject of several jokes, perhaps because I was the only foreigner in the 12-person crowd.

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It’s hard to find Christmas treats around Hyderabad. This delectable dish is homemade plum crumble made by my friend Thomas’ wife.

 

  • If you want to get into the Christmas spirit, start celebrating on Christmas Eve.

I don’t know if I’ve ever missed a Christmas Eve church service, and I didn’t want this year to be that year. So I ended up going to a 10 PM-1 AM church service in Hitech City, Hyderabad. There we sang Christmas carols and heard a Christian message, but it bothered me that most of the event involved a soap opera-style play and a jam session!

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I had Christmas Eve dinner at Thomas’ home. Pictured above is me and Aditi, another girl invited to the gathering.

 

  • Many Hyderabadis get Christmas Day off work.

That means that the malls, restaurants, and movie theatres are hopping. I saw a rom-com Bollywood movie, went bowling, had street food, and took a boat ride to see a statue of Buddha. Not exactly Christmas activities!

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The Buddha statue in the middle of Hyderabad’s Hussain Sagar Lake was consecrated by the Dalai Lama and has become a major tourist attraction.

 

  • If you crave something Christmasy, then go out for Christmas brunch.

That’s what I did after having a dosa breakfast at Chutney’s, a touristy Hyderabadi restaurant. I ate my brunch at a fancy hotel, where a saxophonist and pianist serenaded my friend Bhupendra and I with Christmas melodies.

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Me with foods I managed to wolf down at Park Hyatt Hotel’s Christmas brunch in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad.

 

While Hyderabadis don’t fuss over Christmas, they usually make New Year’s plans….

  • Cakes are essential New Year treats.

Not that I bought one. If muffins were sold, you could have counted me in!

  • New Year’s Eve parties are happening left and right.

I almost attended a Hyderabadi New Year’s party because there were so many! Hotels and restaurants were offering buffets with unlimited drinks, dancing, and games. But I instead chose to hang out with my friend Avi, who had other activities and treats in mind.

  • As the clock ticks midnight on New Year’s, the road becomes a chaotic orchestra.

People honk their horns, play music, shout, and wave at strangers. The sky glows with fireworks every couple seconds. Venders remain open, capitalising on the partier mindset. As for me, I brought in the New Year on the backseat of Avi’s motorcycle.

  • People greet each other the first few days after New Year’s.

“Happy New Year,” they say to friends and strangers while shaking hands. It’s like Americans uttering “Merry Christmas” to each other to spread the holiday spirit.

***

While this year’s Christmas season was drastically different from my past holiday celebrations, it certainly was unforgettable. Now as I spend my next couple weeks traveling to villages to research rural waste management, I’m still in the holiday spirit of making a difference. And I’m recognizing that wherever I am, there’s beauty not just in my heritage but also in the diverse traditions of other cultures.

 

Here’s my bonus photos…

First are my miscellaneous fun shots:

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Happy New Year! On January 1, I saw many colorful messages written on sidewalks and driveways.
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A couple days before Christmas, I went to a sufi music festival, which is an annual Muslim festival that involves Urdu singing, poetry, and Egyptian carpet dancers.
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My dear friend and former translator Swathi had me over to her house, where she made me food and gathered her family in my honor.  We also went to the Golconda Fort to see this mosque!
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At Golconda Fort, Swathi’s family and I watched this sound and light show.
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Gulab jamun, a milk-solid-based sweet prepared by Swathi.
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Me with my late night dinner of paneer (Indian cottage cheese) that I shared with my lawyer friend, Bhupendra (pictured in this post’s cover photo).

And here are some takes from my solid waste management research:

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From the left is my translator (his name slips my mind), my other translator Swathi, a waste collector, and me. As I’m learning, the Indian waste collecting profession is very much correlated to caste. Only the lower castes are willing to do that work.
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On the far right is the deputy commissioner, or vice president, of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). Since he’s meeting the waste needs of 10 million Hyderabadis, I was fortunate to meet with him.
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I was interviewing just the sanitary officer (to my right), but after a few questions he said that he was afraid of giving away confidential government information. So he called up his boss, who came too (to my left)!
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A cycle rickshaw used by GHMC waste collectors to deposit wet and solid household waste.

 

 

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