Around the Bay Area, a Diverse Range of Holiday Traditions

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Hundreds of Indigenous people and observers will gather at Alcatraz for the Indigenous People's Sunrise Ceremony, aka Un-Thanksgiving. This photo is from the 2013 ceremony.  ((Patricia Montes Gregory/Flickr))

It's that time of year again -- the holidays -- and for a lot of people that means many different things, some positive and some negative. Within our houses and communities, we gather to celebrate in different ways. Here's how some around the Bay Area are spending this time of year.

Jewish Boxing Day

One woman shared the origin story of her own unique family holiday. She was raised Christian and her husband is Jewish. Neither are particularly religious but they embraced and celebrated their respective holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas. Early in the marriage, she was worried about the potential point of conflict between them around this time of year.

Probably the first or second time my husband joined me for my big family Christmas, he admitted to me that as much as he enjoyed celebrating with us, there was one thing he really missed — and that was going out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Day!

That year, acknowledging how much he missed his Jewish Christmas, we celebrated the inaugural Jewish Boxing Day—and then every year, for us, December 26 was set aside for Chinese food and a movie. When our first son came along in 2009, we found it was sometimes challenging to book a babysitter for the 26th— so we implemented Jewish Boxing Day (Observed)— one day within the week after Christmas, reserved for Chinese food and a movie.

This year, we look forward to introducing the tradition to our son as we plan to try to check out the new Star Wars movie— ensuring Jewish Boxing Day (Observed) gets passed down to the next generation!
—Michaela C. Murphy

But before you make plans to go see the new "Star Wars" movie featuring many leads of color — to some people's chagrin— there is another holiday just around the corner to consider: Thanksgiving.

A Merry Un-Thanksgiving

As many of us know, the story of Turkey Day we learned in first grade is not how it actually went down. English and Dutch settlers massacred men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe. As a result, Thanksgiving certainly doesn’t render the same happy emotions and feelings of gratitude for everyone. Not following? Check out this video:

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On Thanksgiving morning, hundreds of indigenous people travel to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to honor their ancestors and advocate for the rights of their people in a sunrise ceremony. It’s commonly known as Un-Thanksgiving.

San Jose resident Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado has developed a multicultural Un-Thanksgiving sunrise ceremony in San Jose for the last four years. It all started when she was “super pregnant” and didn’t feel like getting up at 2 a.m. to get on a boat on a cold November morning.

Alvarado wasn’t just thinking of herself, eight months into her pregnancy. She was also thinking about the people in wheelchairs or crutches. And those coming from places like Salinas.

Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado put together an Un-Thanksgiving ceremony in San Jose four years ago.
Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado put together an Un-Thanksgiving ceremony in San Jose four years ago. (Courtesy of Tamara Alvarado )

"A lot of people aren’t able to make it to Alcatraz because it’s really far away,” she says.

So four years ago, she started a small grass-roots ceremony in San Jose. She says about 75 came that first year. Last year there were 200.

Alvarado says the event is very representative of San Jose's diversity. It honors multiple indigenous cultures and ethnic communities, and manifests around resistance to colonialism and mainstream consumerism.

"I’m saying let’s gather together in ceremony and honor the ancestors who are no longer here, who were killed ... our grandmothers and grandfathers, who kept these ceremonies alive to remember. Let's teach our children that different communities of color [can] work together," says Alvarado.

She also remembers going over her daughter’s Thanksgiving-themed homework packet, which depicted pilgrims and Indians happily working together and feasting together.

"By and large our children are still being force-fed this mainstream commercial not-true story,” she says. “We aren’t diorama people. We are living people who celebrate our indigenous culture and holidays."

At the ceremony, one of the elders reads a historical account of what actually happened around Thanksgiving. They move on to a pouring of libations, to honor the ancestors as observed in many West African traditions. Finally, native singers offer ceremonial songs and an Aztec dance group performs.

The fourth annual sunrise ceremony will be on Thanksgiving at 5:30 a.m. at the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Thanksgiving: 'This is Our Special Ritual'

For Pragrati Grover in Saratoga, Thanksgiving brings a different set of memories to mind. She came to the United States from New Delhi 27 years ago. Grover says she didn’t start celebrating Thanksgiving until her sons were in elementary school. She says they came home wanting to celebrate the American holiday.

"The challenge was, I’m a vegetarian. To do thanksgiving they wanted turkey," says Grover. "I said, 'Well, I don’t know how to cook meat.' "

Grover buys a ceremonial, precooked turkey for her sons at the grocery store. She says this year they will have cranberry sauce, butternut squash soup, pasta and salad. Grover says her family places an emphasis on cooking non-Indian food because the festival of Diwali usually falls pretty close to Thanksgiving, and they cook up a variety of Indian sweets and savory dishes for that occasion.

They also celebrate with friends.

“We are away from home, so friends have become family. We go on a walk together and take pictures. This is our special ritual," Grover says. The walk is followed by a meal.

Pragati's family and friends on Thanksgiving a few years ago.
Pragati's family and friends on Thanksgiving a few years ago. (Courtesy of Pragati Grover)

"We go around and say what [we are] I thankful for. My kids growing up here had a much more privileged life than I did in India. Now [that] they’re older, they are grateful for their family and for their education that they have received," she says.

Happy Diwali from the U.S.

South Bay resident Kalpana Mohan says she tries to recreate the sound and fury of Diwali for her children, who grew up in the States. The Hindu festival Diwali is also known as the festival of lights. It lasts five days, and is usually celebrated between mid-October and mid-November.

Mohan has fond memories celebrating here in the states.

The night before Diwali morning, I set out new clothes on a tray by our prayer altar. I also keep out the plate of sweets I’ve prepared. In the morning, I light an oil lamp. I apply oil in my hair, massage my scalp and stand under the shower. Diwali is believed to be a time of new beginnings and we wear our new clothes that morning right after our shower and also taste the sweetmeats...

In California, the festival centers around dolling up in new saris and kurtas, meeting and eating with friends on Diwali evening and during the weekend. One of our traditional Diwali potluck lunches with friends mimics a grand South Indian fare. Some 60 of us take turns serving one another as we sit down to eat out of banana leaves.

A traditional Diwali dinner with a set of friends from the north of India begins with a prayer. These friends hoard firecrackers that they've bought over the memorial day weekend. We pass around a bunch of handheld sparklers and also light crackers that burst into a shower of sparks when lit. The night ends with several rounds of teen patti, a gambling card game that is a tamer version of poker.

Coasting by Christmas

For Oakland resident Elizheva Hurvich, the holiday season starts in September. By the time November and December hit, she's happy to just relax.

"We celebrate the Jewish holidays. To me that’s September. It’s the new year, Rosh Hashana. For me it's a month of holidays that involve going to synagogue, getting dressed up and making amends, trying to do better, praying and eating and holiday food," she says.

By the time Halloween and Thanksgiving roll around, things get a lot easier.

"Hanukkah is a time we celebrate, but I don’t think of it as a holiday," says Hurvich. "It just doesn’t have the gravitas of the main holidays."

African-Americans Find Identity in Kwanzaa

Akubundu Amazu Lott began observing Kwanzaa when he had his children.
Akubundu Amazu Lott began observing Kwanzaa when he had his children. (Courtesy of Akubundu Amazu Lott )

Milpitas resident Akubundu Amazu Lott began to celebrate Kwanzaa when he had his children over 20 years ago. He says he wanted to give them something African-centered and meaningful, "because everything they were getting was shallow and either excluded them or painted them in less than the image I wanted them to see themselves in."

Kwanzaa, celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, is about bringing African-Americans closer to their African identity by celebrating seven principles of African Heritage.

In San Jose, Keith Hames holds an annual Imani State Ceremony on the last day of Kwanzaa.

"What we do is give folks the opportunity to apologize to anybody they feel like they’ve done wrong over the years so we can start off with a clean slate," he says.

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We'd love to hear stories about how your family spends this time of year. Be sure to comment below and keep the conversation going on Twitter .