The Bon-Odori is a traditional folk dance from Japan that is part of the Obon Festival. The festival is kind of family reunion holiday among Buddhist-Confucian, where families gather to pay respect to their dead, clean their grave sites and honor their memory. The dead, according to tradition, visit the household altars and bestow their blessings on the family. It is quite similar to Día de Muertos in Mexico. (At least it is to this very outside observer.) Japanese have celebrated the Bon Festival for 500 years, though the date has drifted around a bit due to the adoptions of Western Calendars. Today’s festival is a “Shichigatsu Bon” or “Bon in July”.
I was walking with my friend last night past the stalls of cheap, generic flowers crammed full of Mother’s Day bouquets and she observed that nothing says “I love you Mom!” like something you bought sixty seconds before showing up. (At least Moms get flowers, all Dad get’s is the same crappy coffee cup reading “World’s Greatest Dad” which can’t ALL be true.) Indeed, Mother’s Day is the highest grossing Big Flower Day of the year, outstripping that other Token Gift Day: Valentines.
Not that flowers are inappropriate, or even unappreciated by your Mom. There are few ways one can go wrong with an armful of colorful blossoms and a nice card with a pithy yet poignant expression of love. Who could hate the idea of Mass Market Mother’s Day? The kind of person who thought a simple, thoughtless expression of prepackaged affection is cheap and demeaning is a cold-hearted monster! Or, you know, Anna Jarvis the creator of Mother’s Day:“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
I admit a certain selfish interest in my dislike of the ala carte holiday fare of contemporary American culture. I also admit that I am terrible child, who consistently fails to get his Mother a bouquet of flowers and a Hallmark Representation of my Love. I further acknowledge the best I am routinely able to do is telephone my Mother and tell her I love her on this her special day, and MOST of the time I do it on the day before. Damnit, if I am not stirred to spend forty bucks on something that will land in a trash bin in six days, then how dare I criticize how people celebrate Her Special Day.
I’m not, I’m saying be a better child than I. Here is this woman whom you, face it, put through sheer hell, physically and emotionally. She toted you around inside her body, while you leeched off her nutrients for nine bloody months. Then, for 18 years you demanded every moment of her attention, energy and time. You made her worry, pissed her off, brought her to tears (OK, once in a while they were tears of joy) and generally pestered every waking moment of your childhood. After this, you just up and LEAVE, which causes her to spend a lot of time thinking about you and wondering if you are doing well. At the end of all this incredible pain you give her a sack of dead plants and a pressed fiber slab expressing some emotions penned by a stranger in Hallmarks Manhattan Office Tower? (This does not exist.) Shame on you!
How about, just once a year, you stop being such a narcissistic a-hole and write something from the heart. You could, for example, consider the incredible gift you were given (and not just the awesome Guns of Navarone Marx Playset you received for Christmas that year) purchased at staggering self-sacrifice and say something from the heart. Perhaps you could sit down and write something you might not otherwise be able to say because you are basically a total git when it comes to telling the people you love what you really want to say. You could start with something like:
“Mom, thank you. For everything. Even the things I didn’t like, such as making me give back that candy bar I stole that time. Thank you for not throttling me whenever I was a smartass, particularly when I really deserved a throttling. I know that was hard for you. Thank you giving me life, for teaching me right and wrong and for making me see the world instead of hiding away. Thank you for the gift of laughing at pain rather than wallowing in it. (“Don’t stand there and cry about it, get up and DO something!”) Thank you for reminding who I am and where I came from, even if I don’t always want to remember! Thanks for being there, always. Thanks for finding such an amazing man, marrying him and raising your children with him. So many people miss that last part! Thanks for having my Sister, I had my doubts about her when she came along, but I guess it turned out of all right. Thank you for this life, and sorry for all those times I make you worry about me, even today. Finally, most of all, thank you for not being upset when you don’t get flowers on Mother’s Day…I really suck at remembering to do things like that. I love you, Mom!”
The question came upon my Facebook page if I thought odd the festival was dominated by people who are so clearly not of Indian descent and almost certainly not of the Hindu faith. (I should caveat that actual Holi the holiday was in March, almost two months ago, and was celebrated here in New York City at the annual Phagwah Parade in Queens.) I am no expert on Hinduism, and sadly possess only a generic knowledge of Indian culture. Yet, I know a lot about Americans and how we, often grudgingly, assimilate other faiths and ethnicities into our own.
First, to the outsider it is hard to see the religion in the festival. I am not alone in my ignorance of the Hindu faith. Yet the very thing which Americans find so appealing, the music, food, dancing and colors ARE the ritual. We see religious rituals closely associated with the Western tradition, tied to a building (the church) and often boring. (Ironically, for me, a Southern Fundamentalist Christian would see many similarities in the food, music and fellowship, their services are usually loud, boisterous and full of joy.) I suspect most participants in a Holi Festival are only peripherally aware it IS a religious festival. Much the same could be said if one were to come to an American celebration of Christmas without knowing its history.
Most people see Holi as a cultural celebration, along the vein of St Patrick’s Day, but without the vomiting and fist fights. At least in popular culture, Indian Americans, are starting to make their presence and influence known. I am in my mid-40’s and until five years ago, I couldn’t tell you a single Indian American film, television or music personality that wasn’t a blatant stereotype. While no one would say there is anything close to fair representation, one cannot dismiss the increasing influence. This is not even mentioning the Bollywood Effect.
Finally, the real answer is: it’s the American Way! We like to latch on to other’s cultures and turn them into our own. Using Rock and Roll as the ultimate example of “cultural borrowing” young White Americans took African-American music and ran away with it. Young White Americans are taking Holi and making their own as well. In this case, however, there is a respect and affection for the root of the festival. Rather than remaking it in their own image, Holi is still very much an Indian/Hindu entity, the foundation remains solidly with the people who brought it to us. As more Indians/Hindu come to the United States, they bring their culture to our own and we, in turn, find ways to make it fit. Sometimes, we take it over entirely, other times we adapt to it if only for the day.
I can’t speak for how Indian Americans feel about young White people playing with their religious festivals so exuberantly. All I can do is observe what is before me, and what I see at Holi is joy. Underneath the pinks, blue, yellow and green there is a gamut of skin tones, but for the brief and shining moment when the music is pumping and the colors are flying, everyone is one in their happiness. It gives a cynical curmudgeon something that seems a lot like hope for a future where we aren’t such assholes to one another. Maybe the idea of rebirth, renewal and love can by spread one fist full of colored powder at a time.
I won’t dance, don’t ask me, I won’t dance, why should I, but I love to watch other people dance! More than that, I LOVE watching other people when they are happy and the NYC Bhangra’s Holi Hai Festival is basically happiness in its purest form. I mean, you might think that annoying song where the guy is happy about having an Arby’s hat makes you smile, but a thousand people laughing, dancing and throwing colored powder on each other is main lining Joy right into you bloodstream.
NYC Bhangra calls this festival the “Happiest festival in New York City” and based on my experience, they are not wrong. Every person I saw was laughing, dancing and having a good time. Even your humble grumpy photographer. If you are in Manhattan tomorrow come out to Dag Hammerskjold Plaza between 11 AM and 6 PM, wear something you don’t mind getting dirty and photographers: wrap that rascal…err, camera, I was wiping powder out of my gear for months.
Even as a kid, Easter was a conundrum. One the one hand, we got Loot. On the other, we had to put our best clothes and go to church for long, LONG time. Growing up in a Southern Baptist Church in southeastern Tennessee in the 1970’s Church was already slightly longer than a glacial epoch on the average day, Easter services were somewhere around a geological period. One could rely on Special Singing, the Enthusiastic Witnesses, the Super Sermon, multiple Altar Calls and the Lord’s Supper (crackers and grape juice) Since even the Sinners made it on Easter Sunday, the hand shaking portion after the service was excruciating. (By my estimation, the first Easter service I recall started on March 30th 1975 and ended sometime late in the Reagan Administration.) All the while you are dressed in clothes still scratchy from the rack at Sears and bouncing up and down in anticipation of the Important Business of filling your basket with Easter Loot.
The Easter Loot was another confusion. As a Christian holiday, Easter Eggs and candy left by a giant anthropomorphic rabbit didn’t really fit the narrative. One of the Big Questions raised in Sunday School during the weeks preceding Easter was “Is the Easter Bunny an Angel, or does he work specifically for Jesus?”. Or the popular “Did the Disciples eat colored eggs at the Last Supper?’. You see, none of our Easter Traditions seemed to fit in with the frankly depressing story of Jesus showing up in Jerusalem, getting tortured, killed and then coming back from the grave. Face it, when a six year old can spot the obvious “how does chocolate fit into the Resurrection story?” issue, someone needs to have answers. (Christmas never posed an issue, after all it was Jesus’ BIRTHDAY and presents are part of birthdays!)
Now, I understand and in context it makes quite a bit of sense. The same way a Church back in the 70’s would use a their reputation for hosting the best potluck dinners and sermons laced with allegorical college football stories to bring the unbelievers to the Word, the early church co-opted pagan symbology. Rabbits and eggs really aren’t Lincoln Logs in a sock drawer, they are potent metaphors for faith, hope and renewal. I tried for some time to work chocolate into the equation, and finally decided it didn’t need to fit, it’s freakin’ chocolate!
I am given to understand little has changed down South, children still squirm in uncomfortable new clothes during interminable sermons waiting for the chance to fill their baskets. While I am not religious, I like that Easter still retains the mystery of the Egg and Rabbit for those who are. The knowledge that somewhere in a sweltering Southern Church (and they are always sweltering, even in the depths of Winter) a little boy or girl is bouncing on a pew waiting to get out in the new grass and beat the crap out their cousin over a pale blue egg tucked beneath a flowering Forsythia. After all, it really is about family.