Musical traditions enhance students’ holiday experiences

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graphic by Tiffany Fang

For many students at PHS, holidays are an ideal opportunity to participate in many unique, cultural festivities. During this time, celebrants experience a bond with their families through festive music, which is often endowed with religious or spiritual meaning.

Diwali, the Hindu festival celebrated in the autumn, involves the practice of ancient rituals and the enjoyment of elaborate music and dance. Rhea Bhatt ’15 celebrates the holiday each year with her family. “We perform garba,” she said, “a type of folk dance … with circular movement” in which participants dance to highly energetic songs praising the Lord Krishna or the nine Hindu goddesses.”

“It’s fun,” said Bhatt when describing the festival. “[I] get to spend time with friends … and dress up in traditional Indian clothing.” For Bhatt, music and dance—particularly garba—serve as a window to her culture. “[In] America,” she said, “the rituals of Diwali do not hold the same importance as [they do] in India.” However, she still believes that the music unites her family and the community as a whole.

As a first-generation American, Bhatt experiences cultural connections similar to those of Caroline Smith ’16, who described the music that she has always heard during her visits to Brazil as “upbeat.” Smith, who has a Brazilian mother and extended family living in Brazil, said that “[there is] a lot of Christian-based music, especially during the holidays. [However,] if you go during Carnival in February, you can hear a lot of … music for dancing and the festivities.”

Carnival is a festival beginning immediately before Lent, known as ‘Carnaval’ in Portuguese. For this holiday, Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo host parades that draw over 4.9 million people to the colorful streets, which are filled with elaborate costumes, moving floats, and marching bands. Although Smith has never participated in Carnival, she can remember feeling “connected” to her culture by seeing photos of the “energetic people … dancing in the streets during the parades.” In 2014, Carnival will occur from February 13–17, and Smith hopes to make an appearance.

In addition, many students use the winter breaks to enjoy time with friends and family, as well as to practice their preferred religion. Karl Bjorkman ’15 believes that the significance of music in the Christian faith can be found in carols and hymns. “Christmas is a holy day … [and] through hymns we can express our thanks to [Christ],” he said.

Hanukkah, Hebrew for “the festival of the lights,” includes the kindling of eight candles on a menorah over which traditional blessings are chanted. “Besides the famous Adam Sandler song [‘The Hanukkah Song’] … there isn’t [that] much commercial Hanukkah music,” said Sarah Spergel ’15, who celebrates the holiday. “Nonetheless, Hanukkah is quite musical … because every night, we are singing [over] the candles.”

Spergel describes how music can be used to honor significant moments of the past. For example, she believes that “singing [over] the candles and being thankful for the oil” came to symbolize the Jews’ endurance under persecution by the Romans on Hanukkah.

On the other hand, others prefer just to listen to carols rather than participate in a singing group or religious activity. “For my family … Christmas is a holiday… [that people] celebrate for fun. We keep the Christmas radio on and listen [to the carols] together,” said Nick Pibl ’16. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual or religious identity, holiday music has the ability to rekindle traditions and ignite connections with one’s culture.