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Writer Priya Krisna and her extended family at Christmas
The writer with her extended family at one of their annual celebrations.
| Credit: Courtesy of Priya Krishna

There's one song that immediately transports me to my parents' living room in Dallas, and it's "Must Be Santa" by Peter Price and the International Children's Choir.

An unexpected choice, sure. Also, there are hundreds of covers of this particular Christmas tune. But this version, with its melodic undercurrents that sound like carousel music and the juxtaposition of the twee chorus against Price's deep, boom box of a voice, is distinct. Why? It's the opening song on a CD that, like clockwork, plays at our house every Christmas morning. While I can't tell you that this album (called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, part of a German collection of Christmas music) is the best holiday album ever made, I can say that this is the one that fills me with the most joy and nostalgia when December rolls around. 

My family embraces Christmas to a degree that has always felt odd to me, considering we aren't Christian. We are literally the first ones in line at the store to purchase a tree. Last year, we showed up so early in the season that the salesperson had to go to the back and get one because the store hadn't even started putting them out. We do two Christmases every year (one with the family and one with our other relatives). We have photos of us decorating trees going back to when I was just a year old. When my sister and I were younger, my parents would leave our gifts with our neighbors, Jerry and Helen Mary, to wrap and drop off at our house late on Christmas Eve night. Jerry smoked a pipe, and Helen Mary was constantly baking, so the presents smelled of sugar and pipe smoke. As a kid, that scent was incontrovertible proof to me of Santa's existence.

Writer Priya Krishna's mother next to her Christmas Tree
Ritu Krishna, the writer's mom, made sure their family always had a real evergreen.
| Credit: Courtesy of Priya Krishna

My parents' Christmas obsession started when my older sister and I became part of the picture. They had immigrated here about a decade earlier, and while they both insisted on speaking mostly Hindi at home and cooking Indian food for the majority of meals, they also had a deep desire to assimilate. And they had an even deeper desire for their kids to assimilate. They took us to see as many Hollywood movies as Bollywood ones. Every Sunday, my mom would break out of the Indian-food routine to try making a dish that she'd seen at an American restaurant—pesto, enchiladas, dumplings, misir wot. And each December, she and my dad went all out for Christmas. To them, that was the epitome of American celebrations, and one that was easy enough to learn about and participate in—the evergreen tree, cookies and carrots on the fireplace, and presents in the morning. My parents got ornaments. They made—er, bought—cookies. And they acquired that German Christmas CD, which they would blast for us in the car on the way to school in December and then play every Christmas morning, as my sister and I tore through the red and green wrapping paper, squealing with joy. That CD became so ubiquitous in our lives that if you watch any of our home videos from previous Christmas mornings, you can always hear those same songs playing.

Writer Priya Krishna and her sister Meera opening presents on Christmas Day
Priya with her sister, Meera, on Christmas Day
| Credit: Courtesy of Priya Krishna

It's difficult to fully divorce Christmas from its religious underpinnings, or even the less inclusive aspects—the mostly White imagery of the holiday perpetuated by advertisements and popular culture and the hearty embrace of consumerism. But we found ways to make the holiday our own. My mom developed a Christmas-morning breakfast centered around her version of pancakes (thick, eggless, and record-size) that were a riff on the recipe on the back of the Bisquick box. She served them with Vermont maple syrup that reminded her of crisp fall days from when she and my dad had lived in New England. When we got together with our cousins, we also folded in Bhai Dooj, a Hindu celebration of siblings, as both involved gift giving. We insisted on purchasing a real evergreen tree every year, despite the fake ones being popular in Dallas, because we loved the scent of fresh forest air in our living room.

And as a kid, I found my own magic in the holiday. Just about every day in December, I'd sidle up next to the tree before I left for school, gazing at the twinkling lights, whispering my dreams for the New Year. My parents may have decided to embrace Christmas to give my sister and me a sense of belonging in America. But to me, the holiday was never about doing what the rest of my classmates were doing (in fact, most kids at my school observed Hanukkah). It was always a celebration of my family. As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate Christmas for being a constant reminder of how lucky and privileged I was, and am, to have parents who cared so deeply about—and had the means for—bringing us these moments of delight. 

A little less than a decade ago, my sister started doing Christmas with her in-laws. A few years after that, I began celebrating at my partner's parents' house. My partner's family is Christian and observe the holiday as a religious occasion. They go to midnight Mass, and their decorations and traditions lean more heavily into Christmas' biblical basis. It feels like an entirely different holiday without the sounds of my dad chanting "Ho, ho, ho" whenever we enter a relative's house or my mom's huge, fluffy pancakes drowning in butter and syrup. But every year, I make it a point to FaceTime my mom and dad on Christmas morning. Without my sister and me, they don't partake in as many of the traditions; they don't have a pancake breakfast or open presents. But no matter what, each Christmas that I call them, that German holiday CD is always playing in the background. And whether they realize it or not, even the faintest sounds of "Must Be Santa" are some of the most deeply comforting notes I'll hear all year.