Some countries, including Japan, turn somber themes into celebratory opportunities.
For example, “Obon is the honoring of the dead; there’s ancestor worship. We just go for food and friends,” mathematics teacher Michael Mori said, grinning. “In the American version you have festivals with typically game booths and food booths, a shrine for ancestors passed on before them.”
A common Obon custom is to float candlelit lanterns, toro nagashi, on boats “down a stream or river to go to the place of the dead,” Mori said.
“Then there’s New Year’s,” Mori said. “We use Jan. 1, not the lunar calendar. There are certain foods to bring you good luck for the year, and certain traditions like taking a bath at midnight on New Year’s Eve and [not bathing] again until the next day because you don’t want to wash away the good luck.”
A popular food during New Year’s is azuki, or red bean, which is incorporated in delicacies from dessert dumplings to sweet soups to mochi. Other than these festivals, Mori does not adhere too tightly to Japanese tradition.
“The problem is Japanese celebrations are often tied to religion; as I’m Christian, some of the celebrations have fallen to the wayside,” Mori said. “It’s hard to separate them, culture from religion; some things people think are only Japanese.
When Head of the Upper School Audrius Barzdukas was growing up, he would attend Lithuanian language schools on the weekends in Washington, D.C. as a part of his Lithuanian upbringing.
“When we were younger, we went to Lithuanian family camps and we would raise the Lithuanian flag, even though there was no such thing at the time, and sing the Lithuanian national anthem,” Barzdukas said. “It was a part of my upbringing.”
Barzdukas still has relatives in Lithuania, but he visits Portugal during the summers to see his wife’s side of the family.
“We are like the United States, the Barzdukas family; we are a melting pot; our kids are 50/50,” said Barzdukas.
“We also celebrate Kūčios, the night before Christmas, a solemn Lithuanian celebration. During Kūčios, no food is cooked, it’s meatless.
“There are these things called plotkelės, which are wafers, and what you do is walk around with your wafer and you hold it out to someone and that person will break a piece off, and when they break a piece of your wafer off, you wish something good for them. Everybody breaks a piece and makes a good wish.
“The only people who buy Christmas trees on Dec. 25 are Russian,” counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said. Instead of having trees for Christmas, they buy trees to celebrate the New Year, Bek said.
“New Year’s is the big [holiday],” Bek said. “There are two New Year’s — the Russian Orthodox calendar is 13 days later. It’s like Christmas and Thanksgiving together. You have your favorite food, you get dressed up … it’s totally secular,” unlike most Russian holidays, which are religiously based, Bek said.
Another big celebration is March 8, International Women’s Day.
“The tradition is that any female gets a gift, usually flowers on that day, just for being female. The biggest presents are to the mothers,” Bek said.
As for American cuisine, “there are some ethnic markets where you can find food from Scandinavian countries, and the food is very similar,” Bek said. “There’s pelmeni, little ravioli filled with three different types of meat, cooked with a little bit of butter. So you buy Italian ravioli, cook it in butter, and call it pelmeni.”
“I [also] like caviar, like a stereotypical Russian,” Bek said. “I do not like vodka, unlike a stereotypical Russian. I like tea,” or as Russians call it, chai.
Math teacher Catherine Campbell was born in Melbourne, Australia, but even after moving to California she still tries to celebrate Australia Day.
“It is similar in a way to Fourth of July. Except of course, Fourth of July is celebrating getting rid of the English and we have never quite done that because Australia is still part of the commonwealth,” Campbell said.
The day is set aside to celebrate when Captain Cook entered Sydney Harbor with the first fleet on Jan. 26, 1788. It is the custom to have barbeques and beach parties because it is during the summer time.
“It’s kind of an excuse for a party. For Australians, any excuse for a party,” Campbell said.
Campbell describes the celebrations in Sydney with big fireworks at the Harbor Bridge. Campbell doesn’t celebrate like she did in Australia because it is the middle of winter in Los Angeles. She said Anzac Day is another important date in Australian history, comparing it with Veterans Day. April 25 is a day set aside to remember the lives lost of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I.
“When I am making a worksheet or writing the date on the board I always think about it,” said Campbell.
Campbell says she still eats Vegemite, a traditional Australian food.
“You kind of have to be raised with it. It’s very salty,” said Campbell.
She also makes traditional family dinners that include roast lamb with peas and mint sauce with some roast potatoes, garlic, and rosemary.
Foreign language teacher Simona Ghirlanda was born in Verona, Italy, but her mother was Tunisian, and she recalls spending most of her childhood traveling Tunisia, Corsica and the south of France.
“My father was Italian, and he had to somewhat adjust to the dominant culture which was my mother’s. My mother was absolutely inflexible. She wanted my mother tongue to be French. That was the only language allowed at home,” Ghirlanda said.
Ghirlanda considers her dominant culture French with a prominent Tunisian influence.
“I only know the bad words in Arabic because my mother used to use them when she didn’t want to be understood. I picked them all up,” she said laughing.
Ghirlanda grew up in a secular environment and describes her home as “very open-minded.” Demonstrating the contrast of culture, she grew up with a Muslim nanny and also sang in the Catholic Church choir for years.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘you want to encounter every culture. You are not going to sit in yours,’” Ghirlanda said.
Ghirlanda said she tries to recreate some childhood experiences that have really resonated with her.
“When I cook couscous, it always takes me back like a journey,” Ghirlanda said. “I have to have women around me because I grew up with women who were preparing couscous all together and sitting on the floor with big bowls. It was a full day of work. I like to repeat that ritual. I mainly prepared it with Muslim women. I want the women to also experience that circle and the chatting.”
“I live in the Jewish ghetto,” history teacher Dror Yaron said with a laugh. “When you live in an ethnic micro-cosmos, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a mainstream Protestant society; even the mainstream Protestants are pretty accepting.”
Yaron lives in the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood, where abundant shops cater to the considerable local Jewish population. Born in Israel and raised in the United States, Yaron retains culture from when he was young.
“Purim is a kind of biblical Halloween,” Yaron said. “It’s like Halloween, but none of the commercialized fascination with blood and gore like you see in the mainstream. The only scary costume is depicting yourself as an oppressive king, like Haman,” a Persian emperor who persecuted the Jews. Purim is more altruistic than its American counterpart, Yaron said. Instead of asking for candy, families put together food baskets for their neighbors to “forge communal ties,” Yaron said.
Commonly seen in Israeli clothes are “blue and white, [to] symbolize the colors of the flag of Israel,” Yaron said.
For special occasions he brings his tallit, or prayer shawl.
While Israel and America are similar in their “ambitious, highly competitive worlds,” key distinctions make the cultures fundamentally different.
“The biggest difference [between American and Israeli culture is] the Sabbath, one day in the week in Israel where you can check out.”
“Nowruz is the equivalent of the Persian New Year where we celebrate spring and life itself,” Iranian Ashley Aminian ’15 said. “My family is very moderate and we aren’t too strict about the traditions.”
Aminian is Muslim, but Nowruz is meant to be celebrated by all Persians and is no way related to religion.
“We usually have big family events to celebrate Nowruz, and sometimes I might have to miss school. We usually meet up with my mom’s side of the family. We get together and everyone in the family dresses up and we always have the traditional Persian new year table called the Haft-sin,” Aminian said.
The Haft-sin is a traditional table meant to represent certain aspects of life.
Some of the items placed on the table are a mirror that symbolizes the sky, an apple that symbolizes the Earth, candles that symbolize fire, rose water symbolizing water, barley sprouts symbolizing sprouts, goldfish symbolizing animals and painted eggs symbolizing humans.
Riya Garg ’15 and her family celebrate the major Indian holidays such as Diwali and Holi.
“Diwali is the festival of lights, so every year my family and I lay out lit diyas, little clay candles, in the front yard of our house,” Garg said.
Holi is the celebration of spring.
“In India, this holiday is celebrated with colored powder that people decorate their streets, houses and even each other with,” Garg said. “My family, along with a bunch of our friends, every year celebrate this holiday the same way. During Holi in India, I’ve heard that there is color everywhere and that it is a beautiful sight tp see. In fact, so many people throw color on each other without even knowing each other, as if everyone there is one big family.”
Upper school math teacher Kanwal Kochar celebrates the traditions of his religion, Sikhism, a religion that originated in the Punjab region of India.
“In Sikhism, there are 10 major gurus, teachers, the 10th one is usually the biggest one, which we celebrate in December,” Kochar said.
The 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, was born on Dec. 22, 1666.
Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti is a festival that celebrate the day of his birth.
Most families gather together to pray, eat unique dishes, and praise the guru. Kochar and his family go to temple to celebrate.
“I don’t wear traditional Indian clothes, but my wife and daughter do,” Kochar said.