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Mid-Michigan Hindus bring heritage to the American holiday season | Messages from the Mitten

Praveen Gaur and his family stand on a lawn wearing traditional Indian attire.
Praveen Gaur (right) poses with his family before a Diwali party.

Those who follow Hinduism will celebrate a variety of festivals throughout the year. But most of them don’t fall during the winter months of the holiday season.

Because of this offset calendar, many Hindus in mid-Michigan are happy to maintain their celebrations while also making American holiday traditions their own.

Hindus represented less than one percent of Michigan’s population in 2014, the most recent year that the Pew Research Center completed its Religious Landscape Study. According to the center's research, the vast majority of Hindus in the U.S. are immigrants.

One of those immigrants is Praveen Gaur. He moved from India to the Greater Lansing area for a job in 1997 and has been here ever since.

Gaur said he appreciated learning values of peace and empathy through Hinduism while growing up and traveling across India. He added it wasn’t hard for him to keep up his traditions once he moved because a Hindu community was already forming here.

“Those who came here back in (the 1960s), maybe it was difficult for them because they didn't have a common place they could go to celebrate these things," Gaur said. "But no, when I came here, there already was a temple.”

Hindu temples are a central gathering place for prayer as well as cultural celebrations. One of the most well-known is Diwali, the Festival of Lights which occurs in the fall.

People from South Asian communities often celebrate it as the New Year to commemorate the change in season and the triumph of good over evil in Hindu mythology. They light diyas, little clay lamps, and spread them around their homes.

Gaur considers Diwali just "the grand finale" following several other popular Hindu festivals. Due to the diversity of traditions in India, the holidays an individual chooses to celebrate often depend on which part of the country they call home.

Members of Hindu YUVA MSU light and arrange diyas at their Diwali event.
Members of Hindu YUVA MSU light and arrange diyas at their Diwali event.

But Ashu Acharya, a senior at Michigan State University and the president of the school’s chapter of Hindu YUVA (Youth for Unity, Virtues, and Action), believes the common denominator across all the celebrations is the importance of gathering within a community.

"When we celebrate festivals, it allows people to come together, right, and then really celebrate something that has a joint cause or a joint meaning," Acharya said. "It's, I think, more beautiful when you're able to celebrate it with other people."

Acharya founded the organization in the spring of 2022 to coordinate celebrations and meet with other like-minded students. For Diwali this year, the group gathered to dance with music and create makeshift Rangoli designs. They're intricate patterns typically made with colorful powders and often laid out at doorsteps to welcome positive energy and prosperity.

It’s difficult to know when exactly Hindu festivals will take place. They observe a combined solar-lunar calendar like the one followed in Judaism, meaning holidays don’t land on the same day each year. Many Hindus also associate the exact date for holidays and gatherings with a particular auspiciousness, granting importance to the timing of a celebration.

But throughout much of the U.S., people aren’t granted days off for Hindu holidays. As a result, celebrations often won't happen on the actual day of the festivals.

Shreena Gandhi is a professor of religious studies at MSU. She grew up practicing Hindu and Buddhist traditions. She thinks the Hindu population in mid-Michigan has seen substantial growth over the last 10-15 years.

But she also acknowledged it's hard for community members to reserve a day off from work or school for their cultural holidays.

“There are years where it's Diwali and it just kind of passes because I've got so much work to do," Gandhi said. "I've got so many papers to grade and committee meetings and classes to teach that I can't necessarily justify taking the day off.”

Gaur said he's found that Hindus in America are willing to adapt. He says they often celebrate festivals that fall in the middle of the week over the weekend, when they can gather with family and friends or go to the temple.

That flexibility also means many Hindus adopt other celebrations in America, including Christmas.

For Gaur, it was natural to incorporate Christmas in their holiday schedules. When he got married and had two daughters, he didn’t want his kids to feel left out from those traditions, like getting gifts and believing in Santa.

He noted a clear distinction between treating Christmas as a religious holiday and appreciating it as a cultural one.

“We will put up lights around our house, we will have a Christmas tree, and we'll decorate the tree," Gaur said. "I even had a train and all that I’ll put it up for my little girls, and they loved all that, they loved doing that with us.”

This openness isn’t unheard of for South Asians. It's common in India, a country defined as secular in its constitution with a diverse array of religious communities, for residents to celebrate multiple traditions. It varies between provinces, but people in India can get time off for holidays like Diwali, Eid, and Christmas regardless of their beliefs.

Acharya said a critical part of the Hindu way of life is being able to uphold one’s own values and beliefs while embracing other cultural practices.

"I think that flexibility right there is kind of what makes it okay to do things in your own way, as long as you kind of understanding the deeper aspect of the culture," Acharya said.

Acharya thinks it's important to promote an awareness of different cultural holidays. His organization partnered with police officers at MSU earlier this year to celebrate Rakshabandan, a Hindu holiday in which members of a family tie rakhis, bracelets meant to symbolize protection and security, on each other's wrists.

Members of Hindu YUVA MSU tie rakhis for Rakshabandan on police officers at MSU.
Members of Hindu YUVA MSU tie rakhis for Rakshabandan on police officers at MSU.

Families traditionally will have a sister tie a rakhi for her brother, but not everyone follows the same practice. Members of Hindu YUVA MSU shared a cultural celebration and prayed with officers before they tied bands on their wrists. Acharya said he enjoyed engaging with the community to celebrate the holiday.

Gandhi said holidays like Christmas have over time become a set of traditions not always tied to Christianity itself. She notes diaspora groups like Hindus can maintain a creative balance between adapting to new cultural practices while also working to make them more inclusive.

One of the ways Hindus might do that is by using ornaments that represent Hindu gods.

“You're gonna see, you know, Ganeshes on top of trees," Gandhi said as she laughed. "That's considered perfectly normative and normal for Hindus in the United States”

Gaur says he sometimes wonders if his kids would have been more immersed in Hindu culture if they had grown up in India. But he appreciates that they’ve had the freedom to pick and celebrate what interested them here.

“That's their life, you know, because they were born here. They're growing up here. And, you know, we have to, we have to embrace it, and accept it.”

Gaur left for a trip to India earlier this month. He and his family will be celebrating the holiday season overseas. And that includes Christmas.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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