The Changing Face Of Traditions
Every family will have its own unique values, beliefs, customs and rituals handed down generations. But it is when these traditions evolve and change that you bond better and grow stronger, together.
By Saritha Rao Rayachoti • 14 min read
Like anything else in life, even traditions are not static. Changing times have resulted in the death of some practices, or in the modifying of existing practices. New ones evolve or sometimes existing traditions are deeply examined and better understood!
“When I was a child, a week before Deepavali, my sister and I would divide the firecrackers between us and keep them out to dry when the sun came out,” says Shanthi Ramkumar, mother of two boys. “We had about two or three days’ leave at school. We would be so excited that we would not sleep all night before Deepavali,” she says.
Talk to any parent about traditional festivals in their childhood, and you can be sure to find a wistful smile as they recount the simplicity of life before television and the delight of having one's extended family join in the festivities. The resplendence of firecrackers, the delight of buying a new doll for display before Navaratri or the special taste of a Christmas plum cake lingers on in memory.
Where have those days gone?
Shanthi laments, “Today, festivals like Deepavali are mostly spent in front of the television. Nobody wakes up early. Children do not want to burst firecrackers. Depending on the age, they are either scared, or think it a waste of money and not environment friendly. The only charm left of the concept, are the new clothes.”
Our children live in a different world than the one we so fondly remember. Perhaps our nostalgia plays a major part in the way we involve our children in festivities even as we try to recreate our own childhood memories of the occasion. Still, tradition is an important cornerstone in bringing the family together.
Tradition and festivals
There are so many facets to tradition, from religious ceremonies that mark rites of passage to evolving a family tradition unique to a particular family. Celebrating festivals is only one aspect of tradition, but a very important one.
Why do people celebrate festivals?
“It is our custom handed down to us from generations before us,” says Nithya Madhavan, another parent. “Festivals help us teach our children that this is how we follow our religious practices,” she stresses.
Priya Srikanth has two daughters who are enthusiastic participants in the festival arrangements in the house. Priya says, “Celebrating a festival is the only way our children will learn about it. Besides, it gives us peace and fulfillment, especially as I have seen my mother doing these rituals regularly. We also get to meet relatives.”
Today, there are smaller families, and hence fewer relatives, who are all geographically distributed across the country and the world. Some families still make the effort to come together for a festival. Sahar S believes that the two Eids are occasions for people to come together. “My parents made sure we all got together so that I was able to establish good relations with my cousins. Our family has grown to almost three hundred people. My daughter gets a chance to meet her first, second and third cousins. I appreciate those people in our family who live abroad, who spend lakhs of rupees just to come here to be with us for two or three days.”
Shanthi Ramkumar is appreciative of her friend who hosts a pooja called Kedar Gowri, usually on the evening of Deepavali. “She invites all her friends and their spouses, to her house. If we time our arrival together, then our respective husbands also get to meet and interact with each other,” she says.
Festivities and the child
“Putting up the Christmas tree is a family activity”, says Raji Monisha Cherian. “Each one of us adds our own touch. The biggest association for my son Advait, is the gifts. Till he was seven years old, Advait believed in Santa Claus. It gave my husband and me great pleasure in hiding the gifts and making them appear magically under the tree. When Advait was seven, he watched the movie, Polar Express and realised that Santa was a myth. Now he is fifteen, but when we meet Santa at Spencer Plaza and at the Church, he still takes great delight in shaking hands with him.”
Priya Srikanth says, “My girls are very traditional. The moment they see me wearing a sari they say that they want a pavadai set. They help with the setting up of kolu (the traditional doll exhibition at home). My older daughter gets very excited and keeps asking when each festival would come."
Ishita Sharma says, “I have been married for twenty seven years. When it comes to Deepavali, we go to my in-laws’ house for lunch. Until seven years ago, when both my parents were alive, we used to have dinner at their place. From the time my daughters were in Class 9, it became an occasion for them to wear a sari and get a family picture taken. You never know who will not be there next year, especially when you have elderly people around.”
For Nithya Madhavan, Navaratri is the occasion when she can try out new recipes, one sweet and one savoury. It is also the time when she gets to dress her daughter in traditional clothes as against her usual attire of jeans. “My mother-in-law gifted my daughter a pavadai for Deepavali. She wore it that day but now, it lies unused. I tell her that this is also our dress and she should wear it occasionally, at least once in two months,” she says.
The NRI factor
Aparna Rao was in for a serious case of culture shock when she moved to Cupertino, California, USA. “Cupertino has a very high Indian population. Navaratri is a very busy time for all the South-Indian ladies — visiting each other's houses nearly every day for kolu. By the end of Navaratri, I swore not to eat sundal for the rest of the year!”
Non-resident Indians (NRIs) embrace tradition with great fervour. Many are disappointed with the previous generation for not properly inculcating tradition in them right from childhood.
Meena Radhakrishnan says, “We have always celebrated festivals, but took them for granted. We never understood the symbolism or significance nor did our parents or elders bother to explain. The focus was on fun — fireworks, sweets, meeting relatives and friends. We now celebrate the traditions with a deeper sense of appreciation and understanding. Also, I suppose, as uprooted desis, we have a fear of raising ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis).”
Aparna and her friends circle celebrate Halloween with a potluck meal, then children in the apartment complex go ‘trick-or-treat’ing. She also ensures that her children celebrate Indian festivals with equal fervour. “Whether they follow it or not as adults is left to them — we have to do our best to provide exposure to Indian values and culture. This will set their bandwidth when it comes to ‘westernisation’,” she says.
Rather than getting her three sons to participate in time-consuming rituals, Meena Radhakrishnan, tells them the significance and what can be imbibed from the festivals. Some rituals, considered almost sacrosanct in India — like buying new clothes — are not as relevant to her as the deeper significance of a festival. “I make do with even a new top or a salwar that I wore probably once which makes it ‘new’ in my mind,” she says.
Tradition in the workplace
Karthika Venkatraman works in an IT company and believes that celebrating festivals has now become optional, thanks to irregular working hours and shifts. “We are working on a UK-based project and their festivals are different from ours. So, if it is not a holiday in the UK, we may not get a day off here. I believe that even our festivals should be celebrated. At the very least, the ‘traditional’ day that we have in office every year, should be celebrated on a festival day,” says Karthika.
Dona Konidena used to work in telecom. “We would ask colleagues visiting Kerala to bring us gold-bordered saris, for our office activity on Onam day so we would be dressed appropriately. For Sankaranthi Pongal, we would fly kites and there would also be Rangoli drawing. I was in the Aahaar (food) committee. During festivals like Baisakhi, we had to ensure there would be a Punjabi dish so that people got to know about the food special to a particular community.”
Shanthi Ramkumar believes that although festivals are an occasion to make traditional delicacies, outsourcing makes a lot of sense. “Back in the old days, there would be varieties of sweets and snacks only for Deepavali. During the rest of the year, it would just be normal food with the occasional exception. Nowadays, everything is available throughout the year for consumption. There is no separate charm in Deepavali bakshanam.”
“Today, we are unable to make limited quantities of bakshanam at home. When we use so much oil, it does not make sense to cook anything less than two or three kilos. Plus, it is labour-intensive. Working women end up preparing these festival specialities throughout the night and then feel fatigued on the festival day. If it does not turn out alright, nobody eats it. So, better to simply make a simple payasam (sweet dish) at home and buy a limited quantity from a store or a caterer,” says Shanthi.
Other than religious and cultural traditions, there are family traditions — activities or rituals that bring the family together. For Meena Radhakrishnan, a special family tradition is a trip to India every two-three years. “We do miss the atmosphere in India — nothing to beat that on any festival! My oxygen tank signals 'empty' and I just need to be there,” she says.
Ishita Sharma, who lives in Chennai says, “My husband works in Bengaluru and comes home every alternate weekend. When he is here, Sunday evening is dedicated to playing Scrabble as a family, quite late into the night.” Ishita also believes that anniversaries and birthdays are great occasions to bring the family together. She says, “We've all been celebrating our 25th anniversaries in the family. On my husband’s side, we plan a get-together. It's such fun because some of us have not seen each other in a long time!”
Dona Konidena's family, based in Jakarta, looks forward to an annual holiday, especially since her husband travels a lot. “We make it a point as a family to never miss New Year's eve together. In the last four years, we have visited different countries. My eldest son is already asking where we will be going this year,” she says.
While Sahar and his family love to travel, they spend every weekend with a group of like-minded friends irrespective of caste or creed. “We have food together, we then get the children to bed. Sometimes, there are things to discuss and we talk until 3:00 a.m the next morning,” he adds.
While traditions and rituals keep changing, their importance lies in how they help bring not only the entire family but also the community together. Also, celebrating traditions leave us with invaluable memories for a lifetime.
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