My dear friend Eleni N. Gage’s just wrote her first novel, “Other Waters” ($26; St. Martin’s Press). Much of Other Waters takes place in India, a country Eleni has visited numerous times while researching. She was a Folklore and Mythology major at Harvard, and has a lifelong love of traditions, so much so that the name of her blog is The Liminal Stage: Navigating a Modern World with the Help of Time-Tested Traditions. Considering this passion, I was curious to know Eleni’s favorite custom / ritual / tradition she observed while on the Indian subcontinent.
Which got me to thinking … Eleni is the daughter of a Greek father (renowned writer Nicholas Gage) and a Minnesotan mother (journalist-turned-artist-slash-blogger extraordinaire, Joan Gage); she was raised both in Grafton, Massachusetts and Athens, Greece. She also spent a year as an adult in Lia, the tiny Greek town where her father was born, a time she documented in her exquisite travel memoir North of Ithaka. Then in 2010, she married Emilio, who originally was from Nicaragua (much of his family is still there and they visit frequently). I asked my cherished buddy to share with us her favorite tradition from the two cultures she knows from the inside out—America and Greece— as well as the two she loves as an outsider looking in, India and Nicaragua. — RS
AMERICAN TRADITION: Independence Day
Nobody does the Fourth of July like they do in Grafton. There’s fireworks, of course, and my mom makes a mean blueberry fool, but there’s also a concert on the common in which the band plays the “1812 Overture,” the highlight of which is when men dressed in Revolutionary War garb shoot off era-specific cannons. I brought my then-roommate to the concert once and she looked around and said, “This makes me feel like I didn’t grow up in America; I’ve never been to anything like it.”
We lived in Greece when I was little, and even after we moved back to the States, we’d always spend the summers in Greece, which meant I often missed Grafton’s Fourth of July celebration. So the first time I was around for one I got so excited, I announced, “I’m only going to wear red, white, and blue all weekend!” My cousin, overhearing me, said, “Okay, dork.”
This July 4th I’ll be in Grafton because my husband Emilio and I are baptizing our Greekaraguan daughter in the Greek church in Worcester, Massachusetts, that I grew up attending. Her baptism will be on July 8th and the colors are red, white, and blue — which are the Fourth of July stalwarts, of course, but also the colors of the traditional Greek costume, which is called an amalia, as it’s named after the first queen of modern Greece. Amalía is our daughter’s name too, and the baptism invitation features a photo of her dressed in said costume. After all, you’re never too young to dork out.
INDIAN TRADITION: Holi
I’ve been to several Indian weddings which are such a sensory delight — there are sacred fires, golden coconuts, lots of aunties in amazing saris (and I love an auntie in any culture). But the Indian holiday I’m dying to celebrate is Holi, the spring festival when societal roles are reversed, women harass men, and everyone cuts loose by throwing colored powder at each other. It’s similar to Carnival in that it’s a spring festival that encourages colorful displays of riotous behavior. I’ve never been in India during Holi; I have vowed to myself that I will be at least once in my life. (My Hinduism professor wrote his dissertation on the celebration of Holi in Varanasi, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state; he had to stay there to celebrate it two years in a row because the first year his neighbors gave him a traditional bhang milkshake made with hashish, and he was too stoned to take notes for his paper.) But I wrote a Holi scene in Other Waters in which the main character, Maya, stands inside her sister’s house and watches through the sliding glass doors while her family plays Holi, throwing colors at each other in the backyard. They take so much joy in the act that Maya feels she’s seeing them at their best, almost as if she’s noticing them for the first time. The best celebrations are the ones that make you forget yourself like that, and lose all self-consciousness.
GREEK TRADITION: Orthodox Easter
The biggest holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar is Easter; I love celebrating it every year. I try to do the 40-day fast leading up to it, abstaining from meat and dairy, but the last two years I’ve skipped or modified it because I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding. After the solemn Lenten period, Easter is a great big, gluttonous celebration, complete with lamb on a spit; red eggs that you crack against each other to see who has the strongest one; and sweet braided bread with red eggs placed on top. Greeks are obsessed with food (understandably, since the cuisine is so delicious and the produce so fresh) so the vegan Lenten food is amazing. When I lived in Greece while writing North of Ithaka, what cracked me up was that even the McDonald’s offered vegan and shellfish options during what they called “McLent”; the name was splashed across paper place mats. One year, when we were celebrating Easter at my parents’ house in Massachusetts, a family friend suggested wrapping the lamb on the spit in oil paper before roasting it to make it juicier. I’m not sure if the oil cloth made it juicier, but it did succeed in setting the lamb on fire. We ate it anyway; nothing gets in the way of our good time.
When I got engaged, I started thinking about what seemed to me to be the major downside of getting married: having to spend holidays away from my childhood home. This Christmas was the first time that actually happened, and I learned that it’s actually a major upside—being exposed to new traditions and adding them to your seasonal repertoire. (Who doesn’t love learning a new way to party?) My favorite thing about spending Christmas in Nicaragua with my husband’s family was visiting the Nacimientos, the nativity scenes that families and businesses set up all over town. Like dioramas on steroids, they tell the story of Christmas—and I mean the whole story, with everyone represented, from King Herod to little boys fishing in the countryside of Bethlehem. Every Nacimiento is unique in its own way, arranged differently, and rich in family heirlooms. The highlight is on December 25th, when “Papachu” (what the Nicaraguans call baby Jesus), is laid to rest in his manger.
My in-laws took us on a tour of Nacimientos by night (that’s when they’re illuminated and music is piped in), and my husband’s Tío William brought along a bottle of wine (and a designated driver), turning this into a new, improved tradition: The Nacimiento Tailgate. It reminded me of driving around to look at Christmas lights in our neighborhood in Massachusetts when I was growing up, only it was so much better, not just because this time there was booze (although, hey, that is always a plus), but because of the artistry of the nativity figures and the way they were arranged. And since this was the first Christmas I was carrying around my own baby, I loved having a ritual that involved riding around town visiting displays that centered on the arrival of an infant, instead of Santa or Rudolf or Frosty. This December, it’s my parents’ turn to have us for Christmas; now I’ve just got to figure out a way to set up a Nacimiento on their porch. That’s the best thing about traditions, whether they’re from your own culture or just one you admire: You can take them with you.