Fun and Magic

That angel-topper made it into AMERICAN BETIYA

When I was a teen, I was obsessed with making collages. You know the kind, where you spend way too much time searching through old magazines, cutting out letters and images to spell out inside jokes, and gluing everything alongside photos on tagboard? It was the 80’s cheap version of scrapbooking, and I loved it.

As the holidays approached, my friends and I would spend hours leisurely assembling collages as gifts, our fingers sticky with Elmer’s glue and the sweet candy canes we ate, The Grinch or A Charlie Brown Christmas in the background. We’d break by improvising dances, lip-synching to songs like “Respect” or “Walking on Sunshine.” I was deemed a quintessential romantic teeny bopper for my enthusiasm, especially around the holidays, but I was cool with that: The holidays were about fun and magic, and I was there for all of it.

The weather turning cold meant more time with friends and family: from our South Asian family friends who lived all across the Chicagoland area, to the friends I met through school, who were mainly Jewish or Christian. My family would celebrate Diwali in the fall, and then, the following month and in a secular way, Christmas. We’d decorate our sweet, fake little Christmas tree, take the elevated train downtown Chicago to see the city twinkling in holiday lights, and, once, caroled with the neighbors. On Christmas morning, my sister and I would open a present or two, and, with It’s a Wonderful Life on television, my mom would prepare a feast that ranged anywhere from Lobster Thermador to Beef Stroganoff to an Indian vegetarian thali.

My parents were part of the early wave of non-European immigrants to the United States. They arrived in America in 1969 thanks to the newly established Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, fought for by our Black sisters and brothers during the Civil Right Movement. Despite life in the U.S. being so new, my young parents managed to offer my sister and I a gourmet blend of cultures, free of bitter judgment or shame for taking to one tradition more than another. They presented the united belief that all traditions have elements of joy, light, and community, and we were invited to take part in and appreciate all of them.

Diwali, the South Asian holiday known as the Festival of Lights, represents the overcoming of good over evil, inner light over spiritual darkness, and for many South Asians, it’s as massive a celebration as Christmas is for Christians. I heard how in India, clay diyas light up clean, jasmine-infused homes, fireworks go off in the streets and on rooftop terraces, triumphant parades spill into the streets, doorsteps are decorated in colorful rangoli, and lavish meals are shared with friends and family. It’s a celebration rooted in Hindu mythology and spirituality. Though we’d visit India over many summers, only once had we been there during Diwali season, when I was five, so I’d never actually experienced Diwali this way. In the Midwest, Diwali meant time with our South Asian family friends: the teens would maybe perform a classical Indian song together on a stage at a jam-packed hall in a faraway suburb, or take part in a short puja in someone’s warm and cozy home after which we’d have a huge Indian potluck meal, giggling over our latest crushes. Diwali, like Christmas, was a different brand of fun, togetherness, and joy that I adored, and to me, felt more social than cultural.

The other day, I stumbled across an old collage in the form of a spiral bound book in the basement. It was a gift I made for my husband back when we were dating in college (yes, my passion for collages reached well into my university days), and it was complete with private jokes and swoony photos of us falling in love. Amid the flurry of raising our two kids and juggling our jobs and my writing, this book of collages reminded me of the ways I pieced together traditions as I grew up, left home, and tried to create new traditions still for my own growing family. In the small Midwestern suburb where we now live, we attend Christmas cookie exchanges, seders, happy hours and block parties with our diverse group of neighbors. When they were little, we read our kids books about Diwali, and we still light diyas along our walkway and sparklers in the backyard with the South Asian friends we met when we moved here years ago. Flipping through that collage, I wondered if there is such thing as a singular culture. It struck me, the ways we are part of something more textural and colorful, like the letters cut with care from magazines, letters that articulate all that’s personal, handmade, and unique about us individually, about us together.

I now write stories about teens finding their way across cultures, amid love and heartache, friends and family, dreams and betrayals. And here’s the hopeless romantic in me: I believe it all began with those collages. They tapped my creativity, helped me connect different traditions and people into a kind of beautiful mess that, at its core, is about connection, love, and yes, stories.

Teeny bopper or no, all that fun and magic added up to something after all.

Wishing you all love and joy,


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