Flickering candles, familiar spices, songs learned as a child and repeated year after year - ask local families what marks their holiday season, and you’ll find answers that sound strangely similar, even as they honor different deities and homelands.
Families and faith leaders in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View keep alive autumn and winter traditions that have survived migration across oceans, translation down generations and, sometimes, re-creation when families blend and new stories call for reviving old rituals.
Following are four stories of the season’s lights, songs, foods and love, with ways to participate yourself.
Welcoming autumn with the guest at the door
When you reach the threshold of Rajiv and Uma Ramaswami’s Los Altos home as they celebrate Navratri, the first thing you’ll hear is music. The voice of their daugher Sruthi, 22, rises and falls in a devotional Carnatic melody while their son Shreyas, 19, balances a mridangam drum between his knees, fingers and palms striking in tones and rhythms that dance around Sruthi’s words.
Visitors step in from the night, take a quiet seat behind the musicians and absorb Uma’s room of wonders: a brightly lit spectacle of ornaments that honor deities such as Rama, Vishnu and Durga as well as scenes from religious stories and everyday life. Clay dolls depict a goddess in grandeur, cricket players in action, the eight avatars of Vishnu in a row. Some dolls in the tiered, shrine-like display date back generations, others are new this year.
"Some of the dolls belonged to my grandparents," Rajiv explained. "Tradition says that every year, you add something new."
Navratri - "the nine nights" - follows a lunar cycle pegged to autumn’s new moon. It fell this year Sept. 21-30, with traditions varying by region and by a family’s personal devotions. For the Ramaswamis, whose families come from Kerala, India, the spirit of an open house remains at its center - families visiting home after home, sometimes many on a weekend afternoon and evening, to admire and pay respect.
"A lot of people do this (hosting), so you just cross between houses for the two weekends," Sruthi said of the intersecting paths friends take around town. "You open up your home, have your display up and have food, but we will probably go to other people’s houses, too. People know I sing, and will ask me to sing a song about Rama or Durga."
In addition to laying out spiced tea and saffron almond milk, Uma prepared a traditional dish of chickpeas, mango, coconut, curry leaf, green chili pepper and mustard seeds - chana sundal - in honor of the holiday. She served curd rice with a brilliantly purple homemade plum pickle, tamarind rice, savory puff pastry and the raised Gujarati rice and lentil cake known as dhokla, generously drizzled with green chutney.
The music in their household’s celebration comes from years of study that Shreyas and Sruthi devoted to learning South Indian classic music of the Carnatic tradition. They performed at temples and festivals around the region growing up. After heading off to college, Sruthi stopped her formal training but continues to sing with the family, while Shreyas performs locally as well as throughout the U.S.
After you’ve sat before the family’s tableau and lingered in the kitchen over snacks and tea, the Rama- swamis send you into the night with a smudge of sandalwood and brilliant red powder marking that you’ve participated in a puja, or act of worship, in the welcome of their home.
Finding moments of connection in Hanukkah
When Rabbi Heath Watenmaker leads "Tot Shabbat" services at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, he teaches blessings and ritual based on the idea that Jewish tradition can begin, for a child, with warmth and love.
"(It’s) not just having the kids experience that feeling of warmth and closeness, but helping the adults - the parents - who didn’t necessarily come from a positive Jewish background, or didn’t have much Jewish education, to show them that this is a way of achieving that closeness that everybody wants in their lives," he said.
For those who didn’t grow up with the traditions and are looking to connect in meaningful and deep ways with their children, these are 2,500-year-old rituals that Watenmaker said are "tried and true."
"It is really all about creating intimacy and closeness within families, and creating meaningful ritual moments that families can share together," he said.
The events draw interfaith parents who are learning about Judaism at the last minute, trying to imagine what a blended Hanukkah might look like now that they suddenly have a toddler and no experience lighting, or even properly pronouncing, a hanukiyot.
"Families want to have a sense of tradition and values, and they’re looking for tools to do it. The Jewish toolbox is a great asset on that journey," said Carol Booth, who leads the Jewish Baby Network, a local effort incorporating synagogues such as Congregation Beth Am and Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth.
Watenmaker makes regular appearances at Jewish Baby Network events as the guitar-wielding guy leading songs from the front of the room. The network started as a way to reach out to families in their earliest days, planning educational events and parent meetups that mix Jewish content with community-building opportunities to meet others at the same stage of life.
Throughout the year, the Jewish Baby Network co-hosts events like "Tot Shabbat" aimed at familiarizing families with prayers fit to the natural rhythms of a daily routine, such as morning’s Modeh Ani and the Shema, a fitting bedtime blessing. The organization extends the same idea to holiday events, such as the Family Hanukkah Party, scheduled Dec. 17 at Kol Emeth. The free event is open to participants of any background.
"There are many families at Beth Am who are interfaith and raising their children as Jewish," Watenmaker said, adding that over time, kids start learning the songs at these events - and become capable of reminding parents of words and ritual orders. "Sometimes it’s fun, especially for little kids, to say, 'I’m teaching Mom and Dad something' - that’s powerful."
In addition to the Hanukkah lighting, the December event will include Watenmaker leading songs on the guitar, crafts, snacks and time to mingle. There likely will be a token fried food, maybe doughnut holes as a gesture toward the traditional sufganiyot deep-fried pastry, and shared stories of how different families celebrate their candlelit nights.
"There’s a technical term in Judasim called 'minhag' - 'your tradition'. If you’re Ashkenazi, they have one minhag; if you’re Sephardic, they have another," Booth said. "There’s definitely an aesthetic of an American minhag, and that tradition is omnivorous - I think it’s very American, and very appropriate, since America is Jewishly still the 'New World,' and you can put together an observance for the holiday that makes sense for you."
Preparing for the Christkind at the Weihnachtsmarkt
The Christmas Market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, scheduled to fill Civic Center Plaza in Mountain View 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 9, brings to life the holiday traditions of local expats from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The German International School of Silicon Valley prepares for the event from its Mountain View campus each year, organizing stalls of German and local artisans and merchants, warm mulled wine and cider, sausages, pretzels, candied almonds, lebkuchen gingerbread cookies and stollen cake studded with candied fruits. The family-oriented, free event includes a petting zoo, music and games.
"The one thing that I’m totally looking forward to is the strolling from booth to booth, and just looking at the things that are sold there - this is stuff that you don’t find at Macy’s or on Amazon," said market volunteer Cornelia Bohle-Neubrand, whose three children all found a home at the German International School’s Mountain View campus. "When you go to a holiday market to shop for gifts in preparation for Christmas Eve, it is less commercialized - you have a romantic atmosphere around it."
Bohle-Neubrand said people can enjoy the event with family and friends but also meet people they don’t know who share the same interests.
"I have been so pleased to meet people who are German descendants, and want to get back in touch with the German-European way of celebrating the holiday," she reflected, noting the wide variety of people who visit the market after having lived in, worked in or traveled through Germany and witnessed the tradition at its origin.
Bohle-Neubrand described troops of older children exploring the school’s market freely, a miniature experience of the free-range roaming far more common in Germany than in the United States.
"The market is an area where there is action, community and fun for the children in public. I think preparing Christmas for the family, as a family comes to celebrate the holiday season - these are memories that last a lifetime," she said. "All of my ideas of how Advent, Christmas, the holidays have to be celebrated, I have inherited from my own mother, from my community. As families, we are passing that on to our children."
She described a German holiday experience highly attuned to Advent, the contemplative monthlong spiritual season of awaiting the coming of the Christ child.
"The preparation, I think, has a spiritual element but also a very practical one," Bohle-Neubrand said. "You need to clean the house, prepare the Christmas cookies, the food, create an atmosphere at home with the decorations."
According to Bohle-Neubrand, Germans spend more time in the house in winter, receding into their private lives and family time.
"Outside it is dark and yucky, but at home you find your cozy shelter," she said. "And the coziness, we call it in Germany 'gemütlichkeit.' I think that is extremely important, and we hope that visitors to the Weihnachtsmarkt find that, too - you come together with your friends and other families, and you sit down, and you don’t have the stress you find when you run into Valley Fair."
For more information on the Weihnachtsmarkt, visit tinyurl.com/MVholidaymarket.
At the New Year, tasting a past only fleetingly remembered
Los Altos resident Irene Sasaki’s father grew up in the Pacific Northwest, his father a lumberman working the mills of Washington state. But their family story, so emblematic of the American West, includes a degree of complexity unique to Japanese-Americans. Sasaki was born in California’s Tule Lake internment camp during World War II. When released, her family started over, aware of the tension between fitting in versus remembering their past.
"I am a 'sansei,' a third-generation Japanese-American, and very interested in the Japanese traditions we still observe today but not very knowledgeable about their significance and historic relevance," Sasaki said. "When we moved to Pasadena after the war, it was always 'assimilate, assimilate, assimilate.'"
She remembers her parents explaining the traditions of Oshogatsu - the New Year - and Osechi-ryori, the holiday’s special dishes. Her mother would work for days in advance to prepare ozoni soup, with carefully crafted broth and a sticky rice cake floating within.
"It was delicious, and I remember she’d go through all the steps, showing me how to make the dashi, which is the stock - it’s such a small thing, but complicated - she definitely did it the old-fashioned, authentic way," Sasaki said. "These days you can take shortcuts because they have wonderful soup stock that is ready-made. It was a wonderful process, and she spent all New Year’s Eve day cooking, and the whole week before gathering the food, and I’m sure we were just not very appreciative of all that work."
According to Sasaki, making the rice cake is a social thing; a week or so before New Year’s, local Buddhist temples have a rice mochi-making gathering, because it is an arduous physical task best done with friends.
Sasaki’s family would gather at a cousin’s house and bring foods from the new country - "You could take brownies and they would be thrilled" - and Osechi classics meant to invoke health, wealth and good fortune.
Sasaki’s family ultimately settled in Mountain View while she was still a child, and her mother quickly scouted out the nearest Japanese food store, the Nakamura family’s Castro Market at Rengstorff Avenue and Central Expressway. Today it is still a grocery store but transformed, a generation later, into a Mi Pueblo Latino market. Japanese ingredients are perhaps now easier to come by in local shops, but skilled traditions - such as an uncle’s treasured, and laborious, gobo root preparation - are rarer now, and cherished.
Sasaki said she and her husband laugh when they look around a Japanese restaurant today and see people of all ethnicities eagerly ordering sushi. There’s a bittersweet wistfulness to traditions she once felt pressure to avoid or erase.
"There would be times when my mother would pack something like a sushi in my lunch, and I was so embarrassed, because when I opened it up at lunch people would tease me," she remembered. "I just remember being told we had to assimilate. We have become so much more multicultural, but in those days I really just wanted to try to be as American as possible."
For more information on local Oshogatsu events, visit mvbuddhisttemple.org. ❄