Sunday, December 28, 2008

#0 B.C.: Bengali Christmas Parties

Christmas is no longer an exclusively Christian affair, particularly in the United States. Many Indians celebrate the holiday as they break from school, work or the job search after J.P. Morgan let them go. Some return home to open presents beneath a plastic tree with their parents, while others join their Jewish friends for dinner at Chinese restaurants. A small portion of Indians choose to celebrate together, adding a distinctly Indian spin to the Yuletide season, forgoing ham for onion kulcha and egg nog for Johnny Walker Black.

The Bengali Christmas Party in the United States has almost become a tradition unto itself. Every December 24th, Bengali Americans and those Indians in the US from orphaned South Asian states such as Orissa and Assam gather at a single home to celebrate the holiday. Festivities begin as fleets of Toyota camries and Lexus SUVs (woops, that's the Punjabi Christmas Party) pull up to the driveway and begin jocking for spots. He or she behind the wheel must put their engineering phD to good use as they evaluate the trade off between proximity to the front door and the likelihood of being parked in.

From there aunties tip toe up the ice in snow boots clutching plastic bags containing their party flats in their hands. Once inside guests remove their shoes and toss them into the massive pile of footwear accumulating at the base of the stairs. Coats and scarves are given to the youngest child of the host family to hang in closets and toss into guest rooms. Adults greet each other and talk about the route they took to get there, while kids smile, namaste and nod at uncles and aunties they pretend to know.

Soon the young ones gather with each other around a gaming console while aunties steak their claim on couches, asking their husbands to refresh their chardonnays since moving means losing a seat. Husbands fetch refills and deviled eggs as the women silently judge each other's saris against their own. Naturally, hers whose looks most expensive wins, with extra points going toward a color-coordinated bindi.

When dinner is served children are encouraged to line up first. During Bengali Christmas Parties, the term "children" defines anyone in attendance with their parents, even if they're 32 with a mortgage in their name. Traditional Bengali Christmas fare includes rice, dhal, cabbage, fish, fish balls, fish heads and mutton. Soda is served luke warm and seating goes quickly. Those unfortunate enough to populate the back of the line eventually must eat standing up, balancing their beverage in the crook of their arm, and using only a plastic fork to pick the chicken from its bone.

Afterward its time for Indian sweets and improvised games of gift exchange. Children will half-heartedly trade presents their parents bought, shrugging when asked which wrapped package is theirs. In the end, distinction doesn't matter since everyone, including the young ladies, will have received some sort of cologne, aftershave or grooming kit parents have decided to regift from the year before.

Rahul: Yay, a Drakkar Noir economy pack. Thanks, Ishan, I think we gave this to your dad last year.

Unfortunately, due to the overabundance of cheap Indians someone who took the gift exchange seriously and gave another guest a selection of foreign beers and Belgian chocolates will receive only a pair of Isotoner gloves in return. Sorry about that.

Meanwhile, the adults participate in an elaborate gift exchange game that increases in complexity each year. What began as a simple Secret Santa ten years ago now includes a round of Antakshri, which for Bengalis means the recitation of poems instead of singing. New developments also include "Chinese Auction," which offensively describes a game during which guests steal gifts from each other. Because Indians cheat at everything, many aunties and uncles will hide gifts around the house so no one can choose their present at "auction." This not only undermines the point of the game but also perfectly captures the Bengali Christmas spirit.

As the party winds down the time comes to leave. Long goodbyes begin near the back of the house before 35 minutes later making their way to the front door. Once coats and scarves are found, the long process of digging out your shoes and matching each to its pair begins. Due to the popularity of brown Dockers shoes among Indian uncles, shoes are often mistakenly traded. Even more often, someone doesn't notice.

Afterward it's a game of automative Mahjong as cars must be strategically moved to let some out while others stay. As the GPS cues up the directions back home, the kids fall asleep in the backseat as mom sits shotgun and complains about the presents she received. It was a happy Bengali Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


Nandini said...

Ummm... wow.
Were you at last night's Christmas party by any chance??

Mahotma in Herre said...

Christmas party on December 28th? Naw, I wasn't there. I'm usually done celebrating the birth of Christ after the 25th.

ZenDenizen said...

I am digging the creation of the new Jhumpa Lahiri shit label on this blog.


Could the writer please enlighten me the meaning of "orphaned states of Orissa"?

We have celebrating Christmas as a family occasion since our times in England 25 years ago, and now in the US. We invite friends from many nationalities, set up Christmas tree, open presents, carve turkey and get Marks & Spencer Christmas pudding. And we are also Hindus! It is the spirit of Happy Holidays that we celebrate like everyone else.

Mahotma in Herre said...

"orphaned South Asian states such as Orissa and Assam..."

seems self-explanatory to me.

Anonymous said...

Came to your blog from JOAT's. You do have a great sense of humor:-) And trust me, this Bengali party post totally rocks! Being a Bengali, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. So true! LOL

Sri Jayam said...

Nice blog to know more about Christmas.
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