With students celebrating a wide variety of cultural and religious holidays, there was no shortage of celebration this season. Whether it be the harvest festival Makar Sankranti, the Jewish tradition of lighting the Menorah during Hanukkah or decorating the Christmas tree, students’ traditions are characterized by exciting festivities and family union.
One such holiday celebrated by students at the University is Makar Sankranti — a Hindu festival celebrated each year in January that marks the beginning of a new harvest season. Although the celebration has many different names, in North India it is often referred to as Makar Sankranti and in South India it is referred to as Pongal. This year, Makar Sankranti is to be celebrated on Jan. 14.
Aparna Ramanan, fourth-year Engineering student and culture chair of the Indian Student Association, is South Indian and values the Pongal tradition of boiling milk. Sometimes with rice added in, the milk is boiled until it overflows, which is a manifestation of hope for abundant crop yields during the harvest season.
“We wake up [at dawn] and then we boil milk in the morning because in India, boiling milk is a symbolism of prosperity and good health,” Ramanan said.
Ramanan recognizes the diversity of Pongal traditions in different regions of India. In Northern India, people go to Melas, or fairs. Following their participation in a ceremonial river bathing in the Son, Banas, Mahan or Gopad River, those celebrating Makar Sankranti will consume traditional cuisine and freshly harvested produce. Another common tradition in North Indian celebration of Makar Sankranti is kite flying and decorating.
Living in Northern Virginia, Pongal allows Ramanan to maintain cultural tradition and garner a sense of connection by participating in a widely and diversely celebrated holiday.
“[Pongal is] a way for me to connect back with my Indian roots. No one else really knows that it exists compared to the more generic holidays like Diwali,” Ramanan said. “I personally like celebrating Pongal because it's niche and reminds me of, you know, the smaller traditions of my culture and also reminds me of the vast differences of culture in India.”
Another holiday celebrated by students is Hanukkah, which occurred from Nov. 28 to Dec. 6 this past year. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, families recite Hanukkah blessings and light one of the eight candles of the menorah. The eight candles evoke the story of the Hanukkah miracle — when the oil to light the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem miraculously kept the candles aflame for eight nights despite being projected to extinguish after the first night. This event marked the Jews’ triumph over a tyrant king who forced them to worship Greek Gods and their reclamation of the holy temple.
Second-year College student Adin Yager celebrated Hanukkah for the first time on Grounds this year. Yager has found ways to adapt to this unique context such as returning to Grounds after Thanksgiving break with a large bag of Hanukkah presents gifted to him by his mother. Although he left his Menorah at home, Yager has still managed to experience the emblematic cultural tradition of Hanukkah — the lighting of the Menorah.
“Every night for candle lighting, I've been FaceTiming with my family ... [My mom] gave me a bag of, you know, little presents to take so I've been opening them [over FaceTime],” Yager said.
Yager said he has also attended one of the Menorah lightings hosted by the Chabad House, where he ran into University President Jim Ryan engaged in discussion with Rabbi Shlomo.
When home for Hanukkah, Yager shared that his family’s celebration includes many of the conventional Hanukkah traditions like Menorah lightings, singing Hanukkah songs and joining with family members to enjoy traditional Jewish cuisine.
“At home we'll light the menorah every night. [We] say all the blessings, sing some Hanukkah songs afterwards, [and] open some presents. We’ll, you know, have family and friends over,” Yager said. “Every once in a while, we’ll do a, you know, bigger Hanukkah dinner with a ton of latkes and … jelly donuts.”
Beyond conventional Hanukkah traditions, Yager said that his extended family lives as far as Michigan, a distance demanding unique traditions such as a long-distance gift exchange.
“All the cousins that are around my age group, we do our little gift exchange,” Yager said.
“And that one's a really fun one where we get to, you know, pick out something funny for a cousin, and then write them a funny note and have them try to guess who gave it.”
Students of other religious and cultural backgrounds also took up the holiday spirit over winter break. Many students celebrated the Christian holiday of Christmas.
While many still celebrate the day as a religious holiday, the annual celebration has also evolved into a cultural event with secular traditions. Many place a Christmas tree decorated with lights and ornaments in their homes. Children commonly believe in Santa, a mythical figure who arrives at their homes on a sleigh led by flying reindeer and leaves presents under their trees. Many families also hang stockings — large socks that may be filled with presents or candy.
Second-year College student Livie Nute celebrates Christmas with her family each year, though her experience is far from conventional. Living in Crested Butte, Colo., a popular ski town, Nute says it is tradition in her town to ski on Christmas morning.
“Every year, [my town tries] to break the record of the amount of people dressed up as Santa that were skiing on Christmas,” Nute said. “And so [the ski resorts] would give out cheaper lift tickets if you came dressed as Santa. So one super fun thing was just seeing all these Santas on the slope.”
Prior to waking up early to hit the slopes, Nute and her family have historically planned to sit down to a nice Christmas Eve dinner, though this plan often does not materialize.
“My mom is normally a really good cook, but she is cursed on Christmas Eve, because she'll always try to cook us some nice, elaborate meal and it always goes horribly wrong,” Nute said. “We almost always end up eating Raisin Bran.”
Some families choose to travel during Christmas, replacing presents under the Christmas tree with memorable experiences. Nute says it is tradition for her family to travel the globe on Christmas day.
“One time we opened presents on a train in Thailand,” Nute said. “One time we went to Machu Picchu on Christmas Day. Another time we went to these backcountry saunas in Guatemala … our tradition is kind of to not have a tradition.”
Whether traveling the world or skiing the slopes at home, Nute recognizes a universal value for those who celebrate Christmas.
“My favorite aspect [of Christmas] is probably just being with family,” Nute said. “I know that's stereotypical, but usually my parents and I, and my brother, will all go skiing on that day and then open presents… it's a great time to be around my loved ones.”
Nute notes the common thread of all holiday traditions — they are formed through human connection. Whether participating in tradition as a means for cultural connection like in Ramanan’s Pongal celebration or for familial connection like in Yager’s long-distance FaceTime calls and gift exchanges, to engage in shared traditions is to take part in something larger than oneself and spend valuable time with loved ones.